Saturday, August 18, 2018

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down by prolific and award winning author/poet Jason Reynolds tackles the troubling issue of gun violence. In this novel-in-verse, the events are narrated by fifteen-year-old William Holloman whose nineteen-year-old brother Shawn was shot and killed the day before. Will compares the loss of his beloved brother, who taught him how do a "Penny Drop", to having a molar pulled. For him it feels strange and hard to say "Shawn's dead.".

Will and his friend Tony were outside talking about their hope of growing taller, when they heard the shots and hit the pavement. When they looked up, Shawn had been shot.

Beside him was his girlfriend Leticia, screaming as he lay dying. The police arrived and asked if anyone saw anything but no one said anything because the rules are no crying, no snitching and get revenge.

Now a day later, back in their 8th floor apartment, Will is in the bedroom he shared with Shawn, covering his head with his pillow to block out the sobs of his mother. On the other side of the room, Shawn's side, sits his dresser with the middle drawer jammed shut. But Will knows what's in there: "A tool for Rule No. 3" Will believes it was Carlson Riggs who shot his brother because Riggs recently joined the Dark Suns gang and because he had to show he belonged with them. And because of the crime shows Will has watched with his mom. He always knew who the killer was. It is his special gift.

Will manages to force open the drawer enough to get the gun and decides he will avenge his brother's death. His plan is to wait for Riggs in the morning at the front of his building and shoot him with his brother's gun. Will slips quietly out of his apartment, careful not to disturb his mother, and enters the elevator. It is seven floors down to the lobby. Seven floors to think about what he's about to do. Seven floors for fate to intervene.

Discussion

**this review contains spoilers**

Long Way Down is a haunting novel that explores the impact of gun violence on the lives of  young people today and the cycle of trauma, anger and loss that this violence breeds.  The day after the murder of his older brother Shawn, fifteen-year-old Will takes his brother's gun with the intent to kill the person who murdered him. Will, like his father, his uncle, and his brother has been taught to follow, unquestioningly "The Rules" which consist of
1.No crying
2.No snitching
3. Always get revenge
After Shawn's murder, Will has followed the first two "rules"; he hasn't cried nor snitched and he is about to follow through on the third, by killing his brother's murderer.

He takes the elevator from his family's 8th floor apartment to the lobby but in those 60 seconds, the elevator stops at each floor and a new person enters the elevator, a time stamp marking their appearance. Will meets six people from his past who have lost their lives because ofthis rule; Buck who was Shawn's friend, Will's childhood friend Dani, Will's Uncle Mark who is his father's brother, his father Mikey Holloman, Frick (Frances) who is the man who murdered Buck, and finally his brother Shawn. Each of these people are ghosts, who Will can see, touch and talk with, but who have no reflection in the elevator doors. Each of these people challenge Will in a different way to reconsider what he's about to do.

Buck's presence shocks Will because he knows Buck is dead. Buck knows exactly what he's planning and tells Will he is no killer. "It's a long way down." he tells Will. When Dani enters, Will doesn't recognize her at first and is shocked she can see Buck.  Dani was killed when she was eight-years-old and is wearing the flower dress she died in but looking eight years older. Her death led Shawn to teach Will "The Rules" and she questions him to consider what will happen if he misses, implying that this is how she died, hit by a stray bullet intended for someone else.

His Uncle Mark who was a drug pusher, walks Will through the scenario of  Will actually killing Riggs:
"I mean, let's play it out,
how this whole thing it gon'
go down. Play it out
like a movie."

Will struggles to finish the end of the "movie" of him shooting Riggs. When he finally says the word "shoot" it is painful:
"it was like the words
came out and at the same
time went it.

Went down
into me and
chewed on everything
inside as if
I had somehow
swallowed
my own teeth
and they were
sharper than
I'd ever known."
Will believes after he kills Riggs it will end but Uncle Mark tells him "It's never the end, Never."

Will's father Mikey Holloman whom he doesn't really remember "was killed for killing the man who killed our uncle" as Shawn has told him. When Will's father questions him as to what he thinks he should do, Will responds, "Follow The Rules." However his father explains to Will how devastated he was when his brother Mark was killed.
"I was shattered. Shifted.
Never the same again.
Like shards of my own heart
shivving me on the inside,"
Mikey explains that when he followed "The Rules"; he killed the wrong man. To emphasize what it is like to kill someone, Mikey puts the guns to Will's head, terrifying him to the point that he pees his pants.

On the third floor, Frick whose real name is Frank, steps onto the elevator. He was a member of the Dark Sun gang who murdered Buck as part of his initiation into the gang. It was Frick whom Shawn murdered. Frick shows Will the reality of what he's about to do by showing him his wound, made by Shawn when he shot him.
                                                                           "See this?
he asked,
exposing a hole
in his chest,
dime-sized,
disgusting,
bloody
but not bleeding.
                                                                           Your brother's
                                                                           fingerprints are in
                                                                           there somewhere."

Will tells Frick that he intends on killing Riggs, but Frick doesn't know any Dark Sun member by that name.

The final person Will sees is his brother Shawn, who enters the elevator wearing blood stained clothing. Although Shawn greets his uncle and father, Shawn doesn't speak to Will, doesn't return his hug and doesn't smile at him. As Will fights the urge to cry, Shawn cries, breaking the first rule.
"his face was wet
with tears he wasn't
supposed to cry
when he was alive,"
By crying Shawn is showing Will, it is okay to break the rules, that they should not be followed.  Will in turn begins to cry, thus breaking the first rule and opening up the possibility of breaking the other rules too, especially the last one - seeking revenge by murdering his brother's killer.

When he arrives in the Lobby, watching the dead leave, Shawn poses a question to his brother. It is the only thing he says to Will. Will must choose to either follow "The Rules" like his uncle, father and brother and likely end up dead or in jail for murder, or ignore the rules, mourn their deaths and live, breaking the cycle of violence. Each person he met in the elevator has left him with questions; What happens if he misses and kills someone else?, Does he know for certain Riggs killed his brother?, What if he kills the wrong person? His father showed him what it feels like to have a gun pressed to your head, knowing you will die. Together these people have forced Will to confront the reality of what he's considering doing; both the consequences to himself and to others.

Reynolds has stated that the inspiration for this thought-provoking novel was the murder of his close friend when he was nineteen-years-old. The gruesome murder led his other friends to consider murdering the person responsible. Reynolds noticed how the murder affected normally peaceful people who, because of their pain and trauma, wanted to kill someone. It was his friend's mother who made them reconsider what they were thinking of doing. He also wanted to write about the codes that exist in neighbourhoods were violence and poverty have been a cycle that has existed for several generations. That code is the no crying, no snitching and always seek vengeance when a murder happens and it leads to the cycle of violence.

Reynolds felt that verse was the vehicle of choice for this story because its attenuated form allows the writer to pass on the sense of urgency, claustrophobia, anger and pain that the main character, Will is experiencing. According to Reynolds,poetry has a way of being immediate and being urgent". The author's use of verse is masterful, employing imagery and metaphors, anagrams, shape poems and background shading throughout the novel. For example, the smoke in the elevator represents the confusion Will feels regarding the visits by the various ghosts and his intended course of action. It grows especially thick after Buck and Dani arrive but clears when his father who died when Will was three, enters. The elevator is frequently described by Will as a steel coffin, alluding to the fact that it holds all the dead people Will knows, those who lived by "The Rules".

Long Way Down is a powerful, realistic novel exploring the issue of gun violence and the pain and trauma this violence has on individuals in communities at risk. While it can be read quickly, Long Way Down challenges readers to really think about these issues in our communities. Readers should take the time to explore the imagery and use of metaphors in the novel. This brilliantly crafted novel is suitable for ages 13+ and recommended for teen book clubs.

Book Details:

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
New York: Atheneum      2017
306 pp.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Blood and Sand by C.V. Wyk

Blood and Sand is the first installment of Wyk's alternative historical fiction series. Set in Ancient Rome, in approximately 79 A.D., Blood and Sand presents an alternative story about the slave Spartacus and the rebellion associated with him. Except in this retelling, Spartacus is an eighteen-year-old Thracian slave called Attia.

Attia arrives in Rome along with twenty other women captives, shackled at their wrists and ankles, tethered together by a thick rope. When she was seven-years-old, Attia's father, Sparro, "swordlord of the legendary Maedi and war-king of Thrace" made her his heir after the death of her mother and unborn brother in childbirth. Attia is the last one to be auctioned and after a bidding war she is bought by Timeus. But Attia has no intention of remaining a slave. Instead, she fights to escape, breaking Timeus's bodyguard Ennius's leg, injuring the guard trying to untie her, breaking Timeus's nose with a kick, and leading vigiles on a chase through Rome. She is eventually captured and finds herself in the house of Josias Neleus Timeus, who tells her that she will be given to his champion and that if she tries to escape again she will be crucified.

Timeus's champion is Xanthus Maximus Colossus, Champion of Rome. He is Rome's favourite, an irony since Xanthus hates all Romans as he was taken at the age of ten as a slave from his Britannia when Rome conquered it. Now in the newly completed Coliseum, Xanthus plans to deliberately lose his match against Taurus the Butcher of Capua, and die. His fellow gladiators, Albinus, Gallus, Lebuin, Iduma and Castor, his fellow gladiators who he considers his blood brothers, suspect he is going to throw the fight and die. The horror of so much killing over the past ten years as a gladiator has simply become too much. But when a terrified Christian is sent into the arena, Xanthus knows he can't let the Christian die, so he decides to kill Taurus.

Afterwards at Timeus's house, Xanthus learns that his next match will be against Decimus who killed his master and was purchased by Tycho Flavius. Xanthus is determined to kill Decimus as he is the one who destroyed Xanthus' family.

Two weeks pass and Attia's wounds are still healing. She is taken to the Champion of Rome's room, a small space with simple furnishings. The minute Attia is untied by Xanthus, she attacks him, telling him she will kill him if he touches her. But Xanthus does the unexpected, he doesn't resist and falls to his knees, allowing her to kill him if she wants. This confuses Attia.

Attia decides she will learn as much as she can about Timeus's estate, doing the chores that Sabina assigns her. Attia discovers Timeus's study and her snooping about leads her to discover that Crassus Flavius was the Roman general who conquered Thrace and murdered her father. Xanthus reveals to Attia that Crassus was also responsible for his capture and the burning of his village.When Attia tells him what happened to her people, Xanthus realizes she is the daughter of Sparro, war-king of Thrace and a Maedi princess.

Timeus's sister, Valeria Bassus and her children, eighteen-year-old Lucius and six-year-old Aurora arrive at his villa. Attia is assigned to be Aurora's nursemaid. She finds Aurora to be a sweet girl, and is told the girl cannot go outside because she is ill. Valeria has Attia accompany them to the Coliseum where she witnesses Xanthus battle a very young boy, no more than fourteen years old.

Both Attia and Xanthus accompany Timeus, Valeria and her family as well as the gladiators and many slaves on a trip out of Rome to Pompeii where they will spend the rainy season. For Attia and Xanthus, the trip will further their blossoming relationship and events beyond their control will give rise to the beginnings of a legend.

Discussion

Blood and Sand is an alternative historical fiction novel which means that some events have been altered for the story. For example in her Author's Note at the back of the novel, Wyk writes that in real history, Emperor Vespasian was the legatus responsible for invading Britain in A.D. 43, not the fictional Crassus Flavius in her novel. And in 79 A.D., at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii, Rome was already an empire; Titus Flavius was emperor of Rome and not Princeps as portrayed in Blood and Sand.

The main alteration however surrounds the character of Spartacus whose name appears halfway through the novel. History records Spartacus as a male Thracian gladiator, possibly from the Maedi tribe. It is believed that he was initially a Roman soldier who then escaped, was captured and enslaved to train and fight as a gladiator in a ludus in Capua near Naples. Spartacus escaped the ludus with several other gladiators in 73 B.C and fled to Mount Vesuvius. Spartacus was brilliant tactician who managed to defeat several attacks by the Roman army. Eventually a wealthy Roman politician and general, Marcus Lucinius Crassus volunteered to end the rebellion and was placed in charge of a large force. He defeated Spartacus and the slaves in 71 B.C. and although it is believed Spartacus died in the battle, his body was never found. While most of the 70,000 followers of Spartacus died in battle, almost six thousand were hunted down and crucified by the Romans, their bodies lining the Appian Way from Rome to Capua. Historians believe Spartacus was not attempting to reform conditions for slaves in Rome or even abolish slavery. Instead it is most likely that his original goal, to flee Rome and to help those enslaved return to the homes, was changed by those who wanted to plunder Italy.

In Blood and Sand, Wyk's character, Attia, an enslaved Thracian female warrior becomes Spartacus after she helps her friend and eventual lover, Xanthus survive a night of battling fighters from Ardea. To aid her gladiator friend, Attia dresses in black, covering her face and gives herself the name Sparro after her dead father, king of Thrace. However, her name is inadvertently changed to Spartacus by Timeus's nephew Lucius. Spartacus's amazing deeds in this arena, lead Timeus to hire a mercenary to find her. That mercenary turns out to be her father's captain, Crius.

The author has also altered considerably the events surrounding the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of  Pompeii. On the morning August 24, 79 A.D. Pompeii was rocked by an earthquake. The eruption began around 1pm in the afternoon with violent earthquakes and pumice and ash falling on the town. An hour later, the sun was completely blocked out by the heavy ash and pumice, making it completely dark in Pompeii. By 4pm in the afternoon, almost six inches of pumice had fallen on the town, blocking the rivers, and clogging the port making escape via boat impossible. By 5pm, so much pumice and ash had fallen that the roofs of buildings began collapsing and people were trapped in some rooms. During this time many of the residents were able to flee, however many also stayed behind, probably believing the eruption would soon end. Pumice and ash continue to fall throughout the night. Around 1 a.m. on August 25, the giant ash cloud above Mount Vesuvius collapsed sending a scalding mud flow racing down its slopes, towards the town of Herculaneum which was completely destroyed. Close to 6:30 a.m., a third pyroclastic flow consisting of hot ash and gases raced towards Pompeii but was held back by the town wall. However, a series of several more flows overcame the walls, toxic hot gases that poured through the town, killing everything in its path. Anyone still in Pompeii were killed, the final flows of gases and ash almost completely burying the town except for the highest walls.

In Blood and Sand, Wyk describes the eruption of Pompeii very differently. "The blackened crest of the mountain spewed flame into the sky. The ground shook violently as a river of molten rock spilled out from Vesuvius and began to snake its way through the streets like a fiery serpent. It consumed the houses and people in its path, slowly but steadily." Attia, Xanthus and their friends are described as fleeing the flowing molten lava flow, through the crumbling ruins of Pompeii as it is also rocked by earthquakes. However, molten lava flows were not part of the Mount Vesuvius eruption - it was pyroclastic in nature. It was the poisonous hot gases that killed people where they lay. They were then covered with large quantities of hot ash and pumice preserving their body contours and allowing for the famed casts to be made almost two thousand years later. Wyk also describes red-hot rocks falling, so large they killed people. While some of the pumice and rocks were large, most were not. It was the quantity of pumice and ash that was the problem - a rate of about 6 inches per hour that quickly filled the streets and courtyards, and covered roofs making them collapse.

Nevertheless, Blood and Sand is an entertaining read. Wyk includes exciting action scenes beginning with the opening chapter, a blossoming romance between the two main characters of the novel, details about life in Rome and uses the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the novel's climax. The story is told in the alternating narratives of Attia and Xanthus.

Attia, her heart hardened by the destruction of her people and the loss of her beloved father, King Sparro, begins the novel wary of everyone in Rome, determined to seek revenge. However, the kindness of Xanthus and the advice of Sabina who reveals herself to be Thracian, help Attia begin to adapt to her life as a slave who has been given to Xanthus. Despite her harshness, Attia is kind to Aurora (who has the ridiculous nickname of "Rory" in the novel - something decidely un-Roman), the daughter of Timeus and Valeria. She also tries to comfort Lucretia, Timeus's concubine who is physically abused by the wealthy Roman. Although she falls in love with Xanthus, Attia never deviates from her plan to kill Timeus who enslaved her and Crassus who murdered her father and fellow Thracians, even when the opportunity to escape during the destruction of Pompeii presents itself.

In contrast to Attia who is portrayed as the consummate warrior, Xanthus whose real name is Gareth, hates killing so much, he considers deliberately throwing a match to end his own life. He kills only when he has no other choice. Xanthus is honorable and compassionate. He treats Attia with care and compassion, and has nothing but sympathy when Timeus's nephew Lucius is forced to kill a young boy, an act that hardens the naive young man.

Readers who enjoy historical fiction and books about Rome should enjoy Blood and Sand, provided they aren't interested in historical accuracy in this alternative history. Readers will also find the dialogue in this novel to be somewhat modern and not representative of the era.

Blood and Sand is Wyk's first novel. She admits to being influenced by modern blockbuster "sword and sandal movies" such as "Gladiator", "300" and the 2010 British television series "Spartacus", whose first episode is titled "Blood and Sand". It should be noted that readers who enjoyed Blood and Sand can read the first chapter of the sequel, Fire and Ash which is due out in 2019.


Book Details:

Blood and Sand by C.V. Wyk
New York: A Tom Doherty Associates Book     2017
310 pp.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Capturing Joy: The Story of Maud Lewis by Jo Ellen Bogart

Not many Canadians have heard of  Maritime folk artist Maud Lewis. Maud was born in 1903 in the town of Yarmouth, in Nova Scotia to John and Agnes Dowley. She was born with several disabilities including misshapen hands, hunched shoulders and a very small chin. She was also very petite. Uncomfortable around others because of her physical differences, Maud was a loner. She was often teased at school and eventually dropped out at aged fourteen. Despite this Maud had a happy family life with her parents and her brother and was known for her sweet disposition and lovely smile. To help her, Maud's mother had her paint Christmas cards to sell to their neighbours. She learned to play the piano but eventually her arthritis became too painful.

Life changed drastically for Maud after her father's death in 1935 and her mother's death in 1937. Around the time of her parents deaths, Maud had a child, a baby girl who was put up for adoption.

Maud lived with her brother who inherited the family home and then moved in with an aunt in Digby, Nova Scotia. It was in Digby that she met her husband Everett Lewis, a fish peddler. Maud and Everett married in 1938. They lived in a small house in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia. Their little house which lacked basic amenities such as electricity and indoor plumbing, would be Maud's home for over thirty years. Despite their very different personalities, Maud and Everett seemed to get along very well. Everett encouraged Maud in her painting but because they were so poor, Maud used any materials she had at hand, including board, cardboard and even household items such as baking trays and dustpans. Maud's worsening rheumatoid arthritis meant she wasn't able to do housework so Everett cleaned house while Maud painted and supported them through the sale of her art.

Her colourful oil paintings, done in the primitive style often portrayed interesting details of everyday life and became increasingly popular. A simple sign that said "Paintings for Sale" drew in buyers and her reputation grew. As is often the case with artists, Maud's talent was largely unrecognized during her lifetime. That began to change in the 1960's when CBC produced a documentary on her in 1965.

Maud's health began to decline after she fell and broke her hip. Years of exposure to wood smoke and paint fumes added to her health problems. Maud died in 1970 and in 1979, Everett passed away. Their house, filled with Maud's paintings on the walls and other surfaces, began to deteriorate. Eventually the house was given to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax and can be viewed there.

Maud Lewis in her home.
Capturing Joy is aptly named for Maud's painting were both colourful and exuded the joyful moments of life. Author Jo Ellen Bogart includes many interesting details about Maud's life. Accompanying the text are Mark Lang's pencil sketches while each opposite page is a photograph of one of Maud's paintings which are exhibited in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Bogart's picture book is a welcome addition to the literature about Maud Lewis because it helps acquaint younger readers with Canadian art and artists.

The inspiration for the picture book resulted from a visit by Bogart to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia where Maud Lewis's paintings are on exhibition and where her little house permanently resides. Bogart states "I went to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia where there is this magnificent display of Maud Lewis' work and the little house she lived in. The entire house is actually in the gallery. Well, this just made it so real. I stood at the door of that house forever, looking in, imagining Maud's life in a structure the size of one room in today's house. I had known her work and liked it, but it was a very peripheral thing because I was busy with other things. All of a sudden, it was front and centre, and I was confronted with her life and her work. I knew before I left the gallery that day that I wanted to do that book." Bogart noticed that there were no books for children on this Nova Scotia artist so she decided to remedy that.

Capturing Joy: The Story of Maud Lewis is a beautiful picture book that captures Maud's remarkable talent and tells her story in an appealing way for readers of all ages.

Book Details:

Capturing Joy: The Story of Maud Lewis by Jo Ellen Bogart
Toronto: Tundra Books       2002

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Leopard Princess by Rosanne Hawke

The Leopard Princess is the sequel to Daughter of Nomads, concluding the story of fourteen-year-old Jahani. The novel picks up where the first ended with Jahani having refused Azhar's offer to fly to the northern kingdoms on his flying carpet. Instead she has returned to the nomads.

After awakening from yet another dream, Jahani receives a warning from Chandi. She immediately alerts Tafeeq and Rahul who order her to stay in the women's tent. They believe the war lord Muzahid Baig's soldiers are preparing to attack. At dawn as expected, the camp is attacked by Muzahid's men. When soldiers attempt to attack the women's tent, Jahani mounts Chandi and helps Neema and a young boy defend it, rescuing Kamilah. After the attack the nomad prince, Rahul is discovered missing. As it turns out he has been captured by Muzahid who is determined to force Rahul to find him the red haired shehzadi "who holds the key to the northern kingdoms". This is the second time Rahul has been captured and tortured by Muzahid, the first being when he was a ten-year-old boy. Dagar Khan wanted Muzahid to marry Jahani then hand her over to him so he could kill her. Rahul insists that the story of the lost shehzadi from the Kingdom of Hahayul is a legend, but Muzahid believes it to be true and offers Rahul the promise of land when he becomes Tham of Hahayul. He tells Rahul that he has disposed of  the shehzadi's adoptive parents, Baqir Abbaas and his wife Zarah. When Rahul refuses to help Muzahid locate the shehzadi, Muzahid has Rahul's middle finger cut from his right hand.

In the nomad camp  Jahani is visited by Yazan, the snow leopard who tells her that they need to travel north. That night Jahani and Anjuli riding Chandi and Rahul on his mare Farah leave Lalazar for the Babusar Pass. They are attacked in the small pass by badmarsh bandits.

Meanwhile Azhar is devastated that Jahani has refused to travel north with him on his magic carpet. When he learns that Jahani has left the nomad camp, he travels to the Babusar Pass. There he finds Muzahid's men waiting for Jahani. He also meets Jahani's foster mother, Hafeezah on her mare Sitarah, heading north to the Kingdom of Hahayul. She is travelling north to her home in Hahayul with Baqir Abbaas's troops under the command of Saman Abdul. Hafeezah informs Azhar that Muzahid has murdeed Baqir and Zarah. Azhar has Hafeezah take his horse Rakhsh north, while he travels by carpet to this father, Kifayat in Jask. There he meets Bilal, the former wazir of  Hahayul. Azhar confesses his concern that Rahul may be taking Jahani to Muzahid. However, his father tells Azhar that Jahani's journey to the Qurraqoram Mountains will help prepare her and raise support.

As they travel north, Rahul tells Jahani he is uncertain that she is the shehzadi that has been foretold.  He tells Jahani how he came to find her twelve years earlier. The summer the royal family of Hahayul were murdered, the nomads travelled farther north than usual into the northern kingdoms. They stayed a few days in the town of Baltit in the Kingdom of Hahayul. Rahul was nine years old and while in the town, he learned that a terrible tragedy had occurred in the kingdom. While walking back to the nomad camp, Rahul saw a  lost, red-haired child fall into the river. He managed to rescue her and took her to the bazaar to see if anyone had lost a little girl. Her clothing was covered in blood and had burn marks. The chai walla seeing her red hair told him to hide Jahani as soldiers were out capturing any red-haired girls. The nomads quickly left Baltit, when armed men arrived in the town. Rahul, who had lost his mother and sister, has his Aunt Yasmeen care for her. At ten, Rahul was kidnapped by Muzahid who tortured him and cut off a finger on his left hand. Rahul's father Tafeeq and Aunt Yasmeen believed Jahani would be safer with Zarah and Baqir.

Jahani continues her journey northward for several days. At the Mazeno Pass, they are again attacked by bandits but are helped by Yazan. One night as they are resting, Jahani is warned by Chandi that men are approaching. They are confronted by men dressed in mismatched green shalwar qameezes, led by an unknown man. The man tells them that he is here not to fight but to talk. He identifies himself as Ali Shah, the second-in-command in the tham's army under Dagar Khan.  He refused to support Dagar when he rebelled and fled to avoid execution/ He was part of a troop left behind to guard the tham, the ghenish, the little shehzadi and their ministers. When troops were overcome by Dagar's men, he managed to get the shehzadi out into the street, but in the confusion they were trampled and the little girl fell into the fire. He was able to put out the flames and they escaped to the river. However the boat to take them to safety was not there and he was wounded by an arrow. The little child got away and ran to the river in fright. And Ali lost her. Now he is commander of the Makhfi, the hidden army, who are loyal to the royal family of Hahayul.

Jahani is shocked because Ali is describing her recurring dream. When Ali Shah asks Jahani her name, Rahul becomes angry but Yazan instructs her to do so. Jahani tells him her name and lowers her dupatta which covers the bottom half of her face. Ali tells her that Jahani was the nickname for the shehzadi and that her full name is Jahanara Ashraf Shaheen Khan. He also reveals that Dagar Khan is a distant cousin to her father, the late tham. Dagar Khan wants to produce the body of the shehzadi so that he can finally have his rule over the Kingdom of Hahayul accepted by the people. Despite her appearance and Rahul's story, Ali Shah is still unconvinced but when he sees the taveez around her neck, Ali is certain he has found the lost shehzadi.

Ali tells Rahul that he has one hundred men and that "another ten thousand are stationed in the forest near the town of Gilit with my captain, Irshaad." Men are infiltrating Dagar Khan's cavalry, training to overthrow him. He also reveals that Jahani's grandmother escaped the massacre and has been quietly organizing support.

These revelations overwhelm Jahani who now realizes she has a surviving relative and has finally discovered her identity. This leaves her with many questions: "What if she couldn't do what the people expected of her?...Would a man like Ali Shah want to rule for her?,,,Is this why Muzahid wanted to marry her? Did he know she was the shehzadi?" She wonders how she can defeat Dagar Khan.  Jahani's path to the throne of Hahayul will prove to be more dangerous and difficult than she could ever have imagined. With the help of Rahul and Azhar, Chandi and Yazan and many others, Jahani will have to overcome many obstacles including

Discussion

The concluding novel to the Jahani Tales, written in third person past tense,  is exciting and filled with intrigue. In The Leopard Princess, Hawke ties up all of her loose ends and crafts a tension filled but satisfying conclusion.


The novel picks up where the first one left off, with Jahani returning to the nomad camp, unaware of her true identity. Azhar has not revealed what he knows about Jahani, and Rahul is doubtful about the existence of the shehzadi, believing it to be legend. Through various characters, Jahani's past and her identity are gradually revealed to her.  In The Leopard Princess Jahani learns about her past and her heritage from Ali Shah, Rabb's cousin Nusrat, from Shehzadi Zeb-un-Nissa, from Kabeer Yazeed who is Jahani's uncle and imprisoned in Muzahid's dungeon, from her grandmother Kaniza, and even from Dagar Khan. But it is Ali Shah who reveals her identity.  When Jahani meets Ali Shah, his story coincides so remarkably with her nightmare of fire and terror, which he could only have known if he experienced it, that she realizes he is speaking the truth.

When Jahani finally discovers who she is and what her destiny is, she initially experiences conflict over who to trust, Rahul or Azhar and self-doubt as to whether she can truly rule her father's Kingdom. The Leopard Princess follows Jahani's personal journey from internal conflict and self-doubt to courage, trust and self confidence to act as a true queen for her people.Faced with the reality that she is the lost shehzadi whom the people of Hahayul have placed all their hope in, Jahani is filled with doubt. "With Yazan by her side, Jahani felt better. But still doubt had crept into her mind. How could she rise to this challenge and be the shehzadi when she hadn't been raised to rule?" Yazan advises her "You must be yourself."

Once Jahani accepts the truth of her identity she immediately begins to act on it despite her doubts. She makes the decision that "It would be best to regain the kingdom with peace, not war." even though she believes Ali Shah would ridicule this goal. Partly this is because Jahani now believes in the vision Yazmeen shared with her of a  "lost shehzadi, a girl with red hair and a snow leopard, come to the northern kingdoms, and she brought peace without a war." Jahani is not to be deterred; when Rahul counsels that she could return with him to the nomads Jahani tells him " You can return, but I would always feel I hadn't fulfilled my destiny."

The main challenge Jahani must confront is discerning who to trust. Partly this is the result of her being passed from family to family, from the nomads to Baqir and Zarah, then to Hafeezah and back again through her life. Because everyone around her seems to have a motive for helping her, Jahani is distrusts Ali Shah's motives and so she tells him,  'I want you to consult me in any plans as I need to learn about my position. What if I do not agree with your decisions?" When Ali balks at this she tells him, "And another person will rule in my name since I knew nothing...I think not." Jahani is inspired by the Angrezi rani - Queen Elizabeth who ruled England in the 1500s.

Although initially she trusted Azhar who has been protecting her since she lived in Sherwan, she begins to doubt after Rahul warns her about him. This doubt re-surfaces when Jahani accompanied by Rahul and Ali Shah, meets Azhar who suddenly appears on his magic carpet at the Indus River, offering to take her across the river to safety. Even though Chandi warns her to go north quickly, Jahani determined to make her own decisions, refuses Azhar.  This turns out to be a bad decision that results in her capture and eventual arrival in the harem of Muzahid.

In Muzahid's harem, talking to Shehzadi Zeb-un-Nissa, makes Jahani realise that she's "had no experience, no emperor or tham as father, no paternal authority to tell her what she could or couldn't do...Now many men told her to do what they wanted: to be safe, who to trust, who to marry. That would have to change."  

Unfortunately in her attempt to be independent, Jahani turns away the one person whom she can trust, Azhar Sekandar Khan. This is partly because Jahani doesn't know Azhar's true identity either. Hafeezah defends Azhar's actions in not revealing himself to her and cautions her, "We must always be careful that pride or hurt feelings don't blind us to truth." Although Jahani feels that she has acted in the best interests of the Kingdom of Hahayul, her heart tells her otherwise.

When Jahani feels betrayed by Azhar for his part in keeping her identity secret, and feels that there is no one she can trust it is her grandmother who tells her that she has more allies than she knows.  Jahani comes to recognize that she has not treated Azhar fairly, that he is an ally and can be trusted. She calls for his aid and when Azhar arrives outside the zenana of Dagar Khan, Jahani learns how many people have come to her aid and just who she can trust.

In Jahani, Hawke has crafted an intelligent, courageous heroine, who is not afraid to act. Trapped in Muzahid's zenana or harem, Jahani isn't resigned to her fate but devises a plan to take out the war lord on her terms. She confronts him in his bedroom no less, demanding the use of her charmed sword, Shamsher and then with the help of Yazan slays him. When she arrives in Baltit, Jahani disguises herself to visit her grandmother Kaniza who is imprisoned in the the fort by Dagar Khan. She decides on a second visit because her grandmother  "Kaniza had seen her husband and her son ruling Hahayul; Jahani needed to tap that knowledge." And she decides on a very courageous path, turning herself into Dagar Khan, whom she knows will kill her in a public spectacle. Jahani shows just how important achieving peace in her kingdom is to her, when she is willing to offer her life for her people. She has changed a great deal from the young girl who witnessed the murder of her best friend only months earlier.

 In The Leopard Princess, all of the characters are fictional except Zeb-un-Nissa, who was a Mughal princess and famed poet who wrote under the pen name of Makhfi. She was the eldest daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb and his chief wife Dilras Banu Begum. Zeb-un-Nissa was highly intelligent and well educated in both the Quran and in the sciences.

Hawke rounds out her novel with  a map showing Jahani's convoluted journey to her kingdom, a list of main characters which is helpful but should have been placed at the front of the novel with the first map which details Jahani's journey up to that point, A Note About Languages, and a Glossary.

Young readers, aged 10 plus will enjoy the The Leopard Princess. Parents should be aware there are several murders, a reference to the rape of Jahani's mother and her murder while pregnant and also Jahani's placement in a harem or zenana. The author merely states these things and there are no graphic descriptions.

The Tales of Jahani are Rosanne Hawke's best works to date. It's obvious this story was dear to her heart and that reflects in the care with which these novels were crafted. The setting of the story, in the mountainous northern kingdoms of the Mughal Empire in 1662, the endearing heroine, the magical animals who aid her, the hint of something more between Azhar and Jahani, all combine to make this a unique historical fiction novel.

Book Details:

The Leopard Princess by Rosanne Hawke
St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press    2016
345 pp.