We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal is one of the most anticipated books of 2019, not just in the Young Adult category but in publishing, across the board. By utilizing the Arabic culture to inspire the setting, story, characters and vernacular from Faizal’s own voice point of view, We Hunt the Flame came into the world with high expectations for not just being an amazing story but a cultural phenomenon for the publishing world, itself.
Thank you to Farrar, Straus & Giroux and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest Review
I want to make this point very clear. I am not of Arabic descent and my opinion in this matter should be taken from an outsider’s point of view. I would not even comment on this piece except that I from everything I read Faizal does not falter on this lofty goal. I can only surmise this to be the case given all that I learned from reading this We Hunt the Flame. What we often forget about fiction is the ability of it to teach. It can teach us about ourselves, about people and take us into to worlds and cultures we would often never experience otherwise.
Utilizing, what I believe to be, authentic vocabulary, the environment in which the characters inhabit and cultural norms in which the characters must navigate, Faizal demonstrates life within the Arabic culture. While this does not replace actual research, discussion and exploration you would gain from discussion and knowing people in your day-to-day life, for those that may never experience it is certainly a beginning to demystifying an often unknown and misunderstood world. For this, Faizal should be commended.
Where We Hunt the Flame, falters is in the story itself. Very well-written banter and few and far between action sequences cannot salvage the story from the painfully slow build and overused tropes.
Pacing suffers throughout the first half of the book due to world-building that is told rather than shows. Despite Faizal’s talent for beautiful prose, it is often self-indulgent in going deep into character thoughts, drawn out walks throughout the desert and little dialogue.
Considering Faizal’s talent for witty banter, the story would have been much better served by replacing the overdone, repetitive straight prose (often found in adult fantasy books- the twenty pages to describe a tree syndrome as I often refer to it) with more dialogue that combined world-building and character building that allowed for more banter among characters. Additionally, more action that evenly spread out, starting earlier in the book would have sucked readers in quicker and gave it more bite.
Later, secrets and revelations galore provide twists and punches to the gut that pick the storyline up and final get things moving. This leaves me wondering why, again, there wasn’t more dialogue that might have hinted at this earlier in the book. Subtleties within conversations that characters quickly backtrack on along with action sequences that characters must quickly find excuses to explain could provide readers with more suspense and interest during the first half of the book.
During the second half of the book, despite the pace and action picking up, there is still an issue that dampers. First, Nasir and Zafir. There is absolutely no reason for this frenemies trope. It one of those that I refuse to chalk up to my being sick of relationships in all Young Adult novels. Not this time. This one is just unnecessary. Not only does it feel forced but there just isn’t that spark between them. Part of that goes back to the first half of that book. Just like the world-building being more tell than show because of the pacing and there being too much show than tell? The character building suffers the same fate.
The characters become very flat and one dimensional, which again is a shame because Faizal demonstrates that she an exemplary writer, but it just isn’t used correctly in We Hunt the Flame. With more dialogue that shows their feelings rather than just repetitious dialogue and prose that tells what they are feeling rather than dialogue that demonstrates their personality traits and feelings, characters become flat and hard to develop connections with. When you can’t connect to characters, you can’t connect to budding relationships.
So even when the story picks up and gains momentum, you want to get excited and bite into the juicy bits, but it is almost too little, too late. Then when a relationship is thrown at you? There is just nothing there to make you care about the why and how they came together in the first place.
I understand that this is the first book in a series and that there is world-building and character building that must take place. It isn’t going to have everything that the next book will have in terms of dialogue, action and the such. Even in saying that, I believe this could have been better. It hurt me to read it and even more to write this review. I was so thrilled to have been granted the ARC and to have a chance to read We Hunt the Flame early. It just didn’t come together how I had hoped.
Would I recommend it for the cultural piece, alone? Absolutely. It is a worthy read for many reasons. For some who like a slow burn build, they may love it a lot more than I do. However, for me it just fell flat in character development, world-building and pacing. However, Faizal is exceptionally talented and this is her debut novel. I am definitely here for the next installment in the Sands of Arawiya series to see how it progresses.