After a chaotic February, I too would like to hide away in retirement like our protagonist in Shannon Chakraborty’s The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi. But that is where our similarities end. Unlike Amina al-Sirafi, I am terrified of the open ocean, yet I decided to follow the storied captain safely from the comfort of my home as she took to the sea for one last adventure.
Amina al-Sirafi is an infamous pirate who savvily schemes across the Indian Ocean. People speak of her in fear and in awe, and the tales about her life are as tall as the mast on her beloved ship, the Marawati. But for ten years, the seas have not seen the legendary woman cresting its waves. al-Sirafi retired and is hiding away in a pile of crumbling ruins, hoping to evade her past and its enemies as she raises her daughter. However, a lifetime career of piracy can’t be put to the sea bed so easily. al-Sirafi is tracked down by a former crewmate’s family member who needs help locating their kidnapped loved one. She reluctantly accepts the call to go on one more adventure, but a lot has changed in a decade and the treacherous seas are becoming even more unpredictable when a new foreign power gets added to the mix.
While I enjoyed The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi overall, the first half of the book was the most compelling. Chakraborty does a phenomenal job setting up the story. She mixes the present with intermittent chapters that flashback to al-Sirafi’s piracy days while sprinkling in a mystery around a horrifying event that pushed the captain into retirement. As we dance around al-Sirafi’s past, her present is built around this new journey and the crew she depended on for so long. There was a defining moment when the story changed for me, and it was when al-Sirafi’s adventure takes her away from the supporting characters. Without their banter, shared history, and interactions in sticky situations the story’s tone changed. al-Sirafi and her crew were the life force of the story and it could not be replicated as we spent the second half interacting with new faces.
The book starts off as if al-Sirafi is telling her tale to a scribe. al-Sirafi interrupts her story to curse and tell the scribe to keep the story true to her unique voice, and the scribe pops in with short chapters of their own to provide background or supplementary information for the tale. While the short chapters continue throughout the rest of the book, the side conversations with the scribe stop at one point. I can see in hindsight why Chakraborty made this narrative choice, but I found it distracting and uncompelling in the moment and I wish it had been integrated more seamlessly from the start. It’s another reason why the first and second half of the book feel different. At first, the energy of the book feels like we’ve all gathered around to listen to al-Sirafi recount her adventures, but when the interruptions with the scribe cease it makes the reader become an active participant. It’s nothing that prevented me from enjoying the story, but it’s a noticeable shift.
This may be a fantasy adventure story, but Chakraborty explores some of the challenges of motherhood, and the balancing act of mothers who have both dreams for their children and conflicting aspirations for themselves. al-Sirafi contains multitudes, struggling to balance the parts of her that is a mother with the parts that are an explorer, two worlds that are at odds when she wants to keep her daughter in a safe, stable environment. It’s the reason she’s so hesitant to take on the new job, but she also feels alive when she’s on the sea. While al-Sirafi’s doubts, fears, and feelings about her role as a mother surface throughout the story, I didn’t find the theme fully realized. Once al-Sirafi is on her adventure it’s all pirate life all the time, and she didn’t spend much time evolving. Her daughter is like the elephant seal in the room that lets al-Sirafi miss home without putting any effort into reflecting on how she wants to resolve both roles as a pirate and mother.
Despite how the story shifted in the second half, I did enjoy most of my time aboard the Marawati. The bombastic energy of the first half gives you the momentum you need to coast through the calm waters of the second half of the story. Our captain was a fierce yet tired badass who had a lot of IDGAF energy that I know many of you will appreciate. There is fun to be had in The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, and if you’re curious, set sail and see where it takes you.
Rating: The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi – 6.5/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.