A fantastical young adult novel rooted in Arabian culture, Spice Road offers a powerful vision of colonization in a fantasy land, filled with tea magic and djinni (spirits). The depth at which author Maiya Ibrahim has constructed this world is breathtaking, and the different settings are reflective of Spice Road’s versatility as an engrossing debut and the first of a trilogy.
In Spice Road, Imani is a Shield, a defender of the city of Qalia from monsters. In Qalia, those who drink the misra tea possess spice magic that they can use to protect themselves and their city. When Imani finds out that her brother, Atheer, who has long been presumed dead, is actually alive and has allied with a group of rebels across the desert, Imani sets out on an epic journey to find him. Atheer has violated Qalia’s very principles by stealing their magic and sharing it with rebels, and Imani intends to bring him back to Qalia. She doesn’t go alone: part of the journey group is Taha, who Imani has long clashed with, and the mysterious djinn Qayn, whom Imani is now bonded to so that he can help her find Atheer.
Perhaps a struggle that may come with such spectacular worldbuilding is that there’s some rocky footing getting into the story. Spice Road has the tendency to over-explain what’s happening at certain times. A well-intentioned technique, the story hits each point home in order for the reader to understand its significance. Sometimes those moments are helpful, and other times the repetition occasionally affects the plot’s momentum.
Much of the story’s potential for advancement lies in moving away from context and into action. Imani consistently emphasizes how much her brother feels like the pinnacle of her life, when those stakes are already articulated from the get-go. In other words, Imani’s investment in the journey to find her brother is evident in her emotional response to the circumstances that caused her brother’s disappearance. It’s one of those cases where repetition may not have been necessary to feel Imani’s dedication to her brother; that’s a dynamic that’s already been established in her pursuit of Atheer.
Once the journey to find Atheer really starts, that’s when each element starts to make sense a bit more in a brilliant fashion. Each stage of the journey is magnetic and manages to reveal something crucial to Imani’s own consciousness of social issues and her identity. Colonization is shown in many ways, from the control the Harrowlanders establish over those they deem as inferior. Ibrahim also incorporates the struggle of learning a colonizer’s language when so much of it is used for brutality.
This is where the premise — Imani needing to save her land and magic from the colonizers — becomes especially strong. Ibrahim truly shines in the amount of detail she integrates into the fast-paced escape attempts as the group encounters one obstacle after another to find Atheer.
Taha is a riveting love interest charged with conflict. Still, it’d be difficult to not say that his personality is rooted in repetition as well. It seems like Taha has an innate need to vocalize how important his duty and father are to him. This is, of course, supplemented by his rigid nature and how he manages Imani’s will, but Taha is another one of those cases where his actions demonstrate his conviction more than any other aspect.
Although Ibrahim does show some of Taha’s complexity in the ways he wavers emotionally, his motivations could be fleshed out to a greater extent. Similarly, Taha’s attraction to Imani could warrant some more exploration, justified through means that don’t rely on them being inserted on a journey together. Imani even says that Taha has deliberately treated her as invisible for most of her life, so his romantic feelings for her seem to come out of the blue. Either there could have been more hints at his suppressed feelings for her in the past or a greater response to Imani’s appeal in the present.
Even despite that, Ibrahim knows how to write romance with just the right amount of angst and vulnerability. Taha’s tenderness towards Imani is illustrated in his softer behavior towards her when others aren’t around. These parts are satisfying to see, even if they conflict with who Taha has been taught to be.
Besides finding her brother, Imani’s character has some empowering character traits, but for the first half or so, she’s difficult to visualize other than her identity as the heroic and stubborn protagonist. It’s an archetype that is often characteristic of any protagonist in general. Although it’s inspiring that Imani is able to fight so well, the fact that Imani starts off so physically strong contributes to the idea that she could use more external development other than strengthening her magic. The tea magic is amazing — there’s no doubt about that — but Imani’s relationship with it is equally as intriguing.
In fact, most of the well-written development for Imani is internal. As Imani witnesses the negative effects of colonization, she wrestles with her duty to her land versus to humankind as a whole. Taha also shows her how her classist perspectives of others are problematic, and Imani must work to unlearn those beliefs.
Spice Road has important themes that are intelligently maneuvered. Although it’s a young adult novel, Ibrahim has deftly navigated the worldbuilding of fantasy with the information needed to understand colonization’s effects in real history. As with any novel, there are places for expansion. It’s important to note that, in the case of Spice Road, the journey hasn’t ended. Ibrahim’s command of this adventure shows that those places are within reach.