Browsing through the posts during Fantasy Book Cafe’s Women in SF&F month could give me reading material for months. (Thanks, Kristen!) Here’s another excellent book I discovered through Hadeer Elsbai’s post there. This debut author spins a tale of magic and the struggle for women’s rights inspired by Egyptian women’s quest for the vote in this page-turner of a book. I found myself thinking about the characters as I was going to sleep at night… and there is a cliffhanger ending, with book two not yet published. You have been warned.
Daughters of Izdihar
by Hadeer Elsbai
Harper Voyager, 2023
Read from a library copy. Ebook and audiobook available through Libby.
Nehal is the daughter of a prominent family. She doesn’t pay much attention to politics even though she subscribes to the Daughters of Idzihar’s feminist magazine, but she would desperately like to go to the Weavers Academy, which is just recently accepting women, and then join the army. Then she could learn to use her water weaving skills well and for something useful. Unfortunately, she’d need her father’s permission to go – and her father plans to marry her off to pay off his gambling debts.
Nehal is crafty enough to gain an agreement from her fiance, Nico, to send her to the academy in exchange for sneaking a provision into the marriage contract that he can take a concubine – something she knows he wants, as he’s confessed that he’d had plans to marry someone his parents didn’t approve of. But attending classes at the Academy changes Nehal’s perspective on the world – including introducing her to the in-person meetings of the Daughters of Izdihar, who are working for women’s suffrage against enormous opposition.
Giorgina, Nico’s beloved, is a bookseller who’s carved out a life for herself despite being working class with an abusive, controlling father. She’s never let her family know her work schedule, so that she can also spend time with Nico, attend the Daughters of Izdihar meetings, and write many of the articles for their magazine. She’s also an earth weaver, but with all of her time devoted to her work, she’s never developed her skills even as much as Nehal. Many religious people believe that weaving is sacrilegious, so Giorgina feels compelled to hide her skills, even as not knowing how to use them makes them dangerously uncontrollable. She’s worked hard to stay respectable even as she finds ways around the confines of proper womanhood – and that includes not being anyone’s concubine, not even the man who would marry her if he could.
Binding both of these women together is the larger-than-life figure of the woman who built the Daughters of Izdihar – Malak Mamdouh, an outspoken, daring woman who is actually able to control her own money and who can weave all four elements.
Magic, politics both internal and external to the country, conflicting romances and family relationships all combine in this book with shades of Avatar the Last Airbender for adults and S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy.