A new epic fantasy series begins with Spice Road, Maiya Ibrahim’s YA debut inspired by Arab and Middle Eastern mythology—with a huge dose of magic too. In this story, we meet a fierce 16-year-old whose reputation for monster-hunting is already established, but whose family life is spinning into turmoil. io9 has an excerpt to share today!
Here’s a plot description to bring in some context:
In the hidden desert city of Qalia, there is secret spice magic that awakens the affinities of those who drink the misra tea. Sixteen-year-old Imani has the affinity for iron and is able to wield a dagger like no other warrior. She has garnered the reputation as being the next great Shield for battling djinn, ghouls, and other monsters spreading across the sands.
Her reputation has been overshadowed, however, by her brother, who tarnished the family name after it was revealed that he was stealing his nation’s coveted spice—a telltale sign of magical obsession. Soon after that, he disappeared, believed to have died beyond the Forbidden Wastes. Despite her brother’s betrayal, there isn’t a day that goes by when Imani doesn’t grieve him.
But when Imani discovers signs that her brother may be alive and spreading the nation’s magic to outsiders, she makes a deal with the Council that she will find him and bring him back to Qalia, where he will face punishment. Accompanied by other Shields, including Taha, a powerful beastseer who can control the minds of falcons, she sets out on her mission.
Imani will soon find that many secrets lie beyond the Forbidden Wastes—and in her own heart—but will she find her brother?
Here’s the full cover:
Finally, here’s the excerpt, taken from Spice Road’s third and fourth chapters.
An eerie whinny echoes down the passage, interrupting our impasse. Amira’s face lights up. “Raad. He’s close. Hurry, we can continue on foot.” She tethers her horse to a withered root poking from a fissure in the wall and takes her woven bag with her to the passageway.
“Stay here while I investigate,” I say, fetching my lasso from my saddlebag.
“No. I’m not some low-rank Shield you can boss around.”
I hop down and tether Badr. “Haven’t you grasped how unsafe the wilds of the Sahir are yet?”
She makes a big show of shrugging. “We’ve not been attacked, and you’re with me. As far as I’m concerned, I’m the safest I can ever be.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence.” Sighing, I go over to her as I loop the lasso around my shoulder. “You said before that I don’t talk to you. Well, let me tell you something, then. A few months ago, my squad leader received word from a small walled town out by the Jeyta Salt Flats. The town was being plagued by a ghoul that had abducted a local man mere hours before we arrived. The man’s family led us to where the ghoul was lurking in the town’s burial grounds. The creature was tall, about seven foot, but hunched over, its gray, leathered skin rippling with muscle. Vaguely human, except its wiry arms were so long, they could brush the ground when fully extended.” I hold up a hand. “It had five fingers with long curving talons in place of nails, same on its feet. In its face, two red-yellow eyes glowing in the moonlight, a huge grin of razor-sharp fangs dripping with saliva. It had pointed ears, and lank strands of straight black hair falling around them. But for the rags around its hips, it was naked, and every time it drew a breath, its ribs strained through its skin.” I stop in the passageway. “It killed and devoured the young man before we could stop it. Right before my very eyes. Do you know what a ghoul can do once it has killed you?”
She presses her body against the wall and whispers, “No, what?”
“Take on your likeness. One moment, the man it had killed was bones picked clean on the ground, hair and all. The mist rolled in, drifted aside a moment later. The ghoul was nowhere to be seen, but the young man was upright again. Living and breathing as you and I. But it was no man. It did not act as a man, could not speak as one, only howl. I killed it with one blow, for if you strike a ghoul twice, it rises again with renewed strength. But that young man? He died twice, and his mother did not forgive me for it. You think the Sahir is safe because you have not been hurt yet, but I assure you, many others have, and there is no end in sight to this war. It is a poison seeping across the land that we are barely beating back.”
Amira stares down the passageway. “I’m sorry you had to endure that, Imani, that you even have to fight in this war, but I . . .” She draws a deep breath. “I will face what I must to save our brother’s horse.”
I take her hand again. “Please, reconsider, for your own safety.”
“I’m old enough to make my own decisions,” she says through an obstinate pout.
Yes, foolish decisions, I think, but I resignedly step past her into the narrow passage. The hungry sand sucks at our shoes, each of our steps sounding like a gasp. In moments, the nickering of our horses fades; the air settles, stuffy and tomb-stagnant. The world hushes save for the sigh of wind over the peaks, and the pebbles rolling off edges and bouncing down steep cliffs. It feels as if we are totally alone, the last beings alive in the Sahir. But we aren’t.
Around the next bend, we are confronted by an archway carved from the stone, once barred by a rusted bronze gate now hanging open. Beyond it, a courtyard with a stone pond. Raad stands beside it, watching us.
“Yes,” Amira breathes, rushing ahead. “See? I knew we’d find him.”
I drag her back. It is not only the sight of Raad that gives me pause, nor the peculiar sense that he has deliberately led us to this place, but the place itself: an ancient dwelling cut from the rocks, once grand, long worn down by time’s unrelenting hand. The opposite wall of the courtyard is a spectacular façade of helical pillars carved around an open archway. Elsewhere in the courtyard’s walls, asymmetric windows peer out, and eroded staircases with spiral balusters meet caved-in doorways, though some remain open, beckoning to the mountain’s secretive depths. Stone benches and urns bearing dead vines dot the cracked cobblestones around the courtyard’s border. The only new thing is an inverse-conical messenger tower next to the pond, about half my height, constructed from wood and brass. When in use, the fragrant smoke of burning spices would waft from it in a sky-tickling pillar, catching the attention of messenger falcons who are trained to recognize the distinct scents from far away.
“That’s out of place,” I say.
Amira scrunches her face. “Why would someone receive letters out here?”
I don’t want to know. And though I am impatient to secure Raad, our Baba, Qalia’s most eminent horselord, taught me never to approach a runaway horse hastily, lest I spook it. I take a measured step through the gateway, then hesitate at the howl of the wind.
“Hold on,” I whisper.
We wait, listening to the wind rushing through the channels and crevices of the mountains toward us, growing louder, clattering furiously as it stirs loose rocks. Suddenly it bursts across the gateway with the momentum of a thrust spear, dragging a swell of sand in its wake that obscures the courtyard from view. I step back, protecting my eyes with my hand as something emerges from the gust.
No, not one thing. Several. Immensely tall, shaped like people. But in place of flesh is throat-stinging smoke, shuddering and simmering, the wispy edges of their silhouettes licking the air in decayed tongues. Faces with hollow eye sockets, the slits of serpent nostrils, and no mouths.
Amira grabs my hand. “Are they . . . ?”
The tallest djinni glides forward on a sheet of black smoke. I hear rushing water; I feel a chill colder than any desert night.
“Leave,” he hisses over the whining wind.
“Get away,” I tell Amira. She digs her nails into my palm and continues staring up at the djinn. It is impossible to know how many there are. They keep flickering, doubling, and then scattering, before re-forming. The only constant is the one in the middle, floating toward us. I prize Amira’s fingers off and shove her.
She blinks several times and scrambles behind a nearby out- cropping of rock.
“You do not belong here,” says the djinni.
I draw the dagger strapped to my thigh, through which I am able to channel my magical affinity. With its polished hilt and watered steel blade, it is a precious family heirloom, a gift from Auntie when I joined the Shields and was initiated into the Order of Sorcerers. It is also the perfect weapon against djinn, who fear steel most. At the same time I draw it, I call upon the magic of the misra. Having had a full tea this morning, I feel it rush read- ily through my veins. The dagger glows white-blue and lengthens to a longsword. I point it at the djinn.
“Leave or suffer ruin by my hands.”
Their malign laughter skates across the back of my neck, summoning shivers. “We shall see about that,” says the leader.
He thrusts a diffuse arm of smoke; the arm hardens to a spear with a point so sharp, it need only whisper across my neck to steal my life. I dodge left; fabric shreds where the spear impales my cloak. The spear retracts and the djinn consider me keenly. Time stretches. Waits, almost, with bated breath in the lengthening shadow of suspense. Then it exhales.
The djinn descend upon me in a flood of smoke. One swings a lance at my chest. I duck as it slices the air above my head. I spring up and thrust the sword through the djinni’s body, scattering wisps of smoke like frightened baitfish. The djinni’s scream inflates in my skull, which throbs, yearning to fracture with the pressure. Distantly Amira groans in pain.
Another is on me, swiping with something resembling a claw. I sidestep the strike and put my shoulder into my swing, and sever the djinni’s head from its body. The stump of its neck sprays inky black blood before the djinni crumples to ash. More and more emerge from the smoke around me, all sneering eyes and rolling laughter. I burn through them, and they keep coming, these rapacious insects swarming from the darkness around a torch. My blade is part of me, wielded as intuitively as my own limbs. It lengthens to a pole-arm when I need to slash in a circle; it shortens to a dagger when the gap between me and a djinni is too small. It impales as a spear and severs as a sword, the djinn crumbling to heaped ash around my boots. Using my affinity makes me feel whole, complete, as if I am ordinarily composed of fractured pieces and magic is the only glue that can seamlessly unify them. The misra courses through me, my magic surging when the blade changes and ebbing in the wake, gradually being spent. I pour my rage into the battle; it is all I’ve done since Atheer died. Harden my heart until I have become more steel than flesh. Fight my way from the wretched feelings I cannot defeat, the angry fear that my big brother abandoned me for reasons he didn’t consider me worthy of knowing.
A djinni screams. The mountains groan, and fractures finger through the rock walls. Warm blood oozes from my nose onto my lips, from my ears too. I cut the djinni down, freeing my vision of the smoke. I turn to attack another, but only the leader remains, striking my weapon hand. A fierce burning takes up in it; my fingers spasm and I drop my sword. He extends a grotesque limb and kicks the blade away.
“No,” Amira yells from her hiding spot. “Stop it, don’t hurt her!”
“You will not pass, Djinni Slayer,” he says.
“So you’ve heard of me.” My longsword is discarded in the grit several meters away. I keep my arm down, but I stretch my hand as I mentally call to the blade. It’s like reaching out to a lost part of myself. I am me, but I am also the blade, and both aspects seek reunion across this divide.
The djinni raises a spike primed for my heart. “Word of your savagery has spread far. Word of your death will too.”
“One day,” I say through clenched teeth. “For all who live must die.” The sword shifts, turns slowly; the hilt pops off the grit. I thrust my hand out. The sword spears through the air and lands in my fist. “But today is not that day.”
The snarling djinni drives the spike. I dodge and thrust my shining sword through his chest. He screams and drops like a curtain of silk, decaying to an ash mound. The wind stops howling; sand and pebbles rain on me in a dreamy whisper. I transform the sword to a dagger and sheathe it.
Amira sprints over as I collapse onto hands and knees. “That was the most brilliant thing I have ever seen! I’d be dead if it weren’t for you.”
Sweat slides off my face and splashes into the sand between my fingers, carving little pools. A drop of red joins them, then another. Amira kisses my forehead, hugging me so tightly, I think my heart is about to pop out of my mouth. I don’t complain; this is the most affection she’s shown me in months.
“The Djinni Slayer all right. Even that djinni knew who you are. Are you hurt?” She brushes the stray brown hair that has escaped my braid and examines me like a healer, with puckered lips and furrowed brow, first my throbbing ears, then my bloody nose.
“I’m fine,” I say, peeling my glove off my hand. It is already blistering.
She steals a sharp breath. “That looks painful. Here.” She pulls a flask from her bag and pours water onto the inflamed skin. I wince but gratefully keep it there until she is done.
“Thank you,” I murmur.
She begins dabbing the blood off my face using a scarf, trying to catch my eye. “Why do you think Raad has come here? And how did he enter without being attacked by those things?”
Excerpt from Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim reprinted by permission of Random House Children’s Books.
Maiya Ibrahim’s Spice Road is out January 24; you can pre-order a copy here.
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