As a part of Barnes and Noble’s YA Book Club, I recently read We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal. Personally, as a lover of anthropology, I really wanted to love it. The setting, after all, was wonderful to me. And, to some degree, I did. However, the further I got into the book, the more “off” it felt. If you’re anything like me and the woman who ran the book club (the two of us making up the entirety of the group that night), then you may agree. So, my first post will be about We Hunt the Flame, and the details of what worked and what didn’t in order to explain my extreme conflicting feelings about the book. (Plus, I may convert a few people on the way. Shoutout to my girl Emily for being the first to fall to my rants.)
Obviously, spoilers ahead.
In order to keep from sounding too cynical right off the bat on my first post, first I’ll start by looking into what really worked for me in this book. First of all, the setting. One of my favorite things to see in books is diverse authors writing about their own cultures or experiences, which is exactly what Faizal does here. Her Middle Eastern-inspired world is rich and full of culture and life, which is much needed when portraying a culture that is so often underrepresented or watered down. I’m sad that we didn’t get to see more of it, but I assume that the world as a whole will be explored more in the second book.
I also enjoyed the system in which Faizal explained her world’s magic. As a born organizer, any system with different, clearly-established categories is pleasing and easy to understand as a reader. Like the setting, I wish this was explored further, but my other gripes with that system will come later.
This book also had some incredible one-liners. In both descriptions and characters’ thoughts, Faizal has some truly shining moments that make me certain that she is an extremely talented writer and full of potential. I was going to give examples but my list just went on for too long and I didn’t have the heart to cut any individual line out. You’ll just have to take my word for it: Hafsah Faizal is an incredibly poetic writer, and all of the following criticisms do not say otherwise. They honestly just come from the nature of a first novel, and I deeply hope that Faizal continues to write and that, as a reader, I can see her writing grow and mature into the inspiring work of art she is already developing in We Hunt the Flame.
Now comes the more negative portion of my discussion. To be sure, I can’t think of anything in this book that I absolutely disliked. Much like the book as a whole, I just had so many conflicting emotions about certain details, both while reading and after I had finished the book. I’ll start first by discussing the characters. Going back to what I said during the book club when discussing the official art on the character cards: “These characters’ designs have more personality than they do in writing.” I liked these characters when they were first established, but they just… didn’t go anywhere (especially Kifa and Benyamin). I kept expecting there to be character arcs that fleshed out these characters, but there just weren’t. There were moments in which each character revealed their past, but I found each story hard to rally behind when their personalities were just so flat. They may have each had different tragic backstories, but if I put a problem in front of them, each character would deal with it in almost the same way. They were just shallow, either with no apparent character flaws or with the exact same flaw, like Zafira and Nasir.
Nasir and Zafira as a couple just didn’t work for me. Looking over couples who
should could have gotten together, their characters just didn’t blend in a satisfying way. Both of them had nearly the exact same character flaw, which to me doesn’t give the relationship anywhere to grow and develop. Interesting relationships come from two characters with different flaws and personalities coming together and working through their flaws, which is possible because each has a core issue that the other does not. With Zafira and Nasir, it feels like they have the exact same core flaw, which makes a relationship feel stagnant and like it has nowhere to go. Of course, the sequel may make me think differently, those are just my thoughts at the moment. A lot of this comes from the problems I had with the pacing of this book. I felt like everything happened on an exponential curve, the relationship between our two leads included. I like slow-paced fantasy and fast-paced fantasy, but when the two occur in the same book it’s easy for a reader to feel thrown off their feet. Enemies shouldn’t smash-cut to lovers, and a slow-paced story about a band of travelers shouldn’t transition to plot-twist after plot-twist at the end.
The many ending plot twists, too, I had issues with. They felt either made up in the spur of the moment, or they lost impact from predictability (a prime example being Nasir bringing up his “destiny of darkness” every chapter and shadow ability coming up during every discussion of magic). A good plot twist has subtle lead-up throughout the book, in a way that makes the reader say “Oh! That makes sense!” and not just “Wow, I didn’t see that coming at all!” A well-done plot twist is extremely difficult to pull off, though, so it is understandable and forgivable, especially in an author’s first novel.
Many of the things that didn’t work in We Hunt the Flame are genuinely understandable for an author’s first novel. Subtle, interesting characters, a steady rhythm, and refined techniques are very difficult to execute, and take practice. For a first novel, I think We Hunt the Flame is a legitimately good book.
But all that aside, I still had something nagging at me. After addressing all of this, I still felt like something was missing. When I realized what it was, all of my confusion about how I felt about this books came together and I realized what, to me, was missing. What was missing to me, and now the book club leader after I went on a similar rant, comes down to Nasir and Altair. Altair was my favorite character in We Hunt the Flame by far, the subtleties of what was under his facade of pride gave him the undercurrent that the others were missing. The dynamic of that combined with Nasir’s trust issues made a relationship that I was legitimately invested in, and the writing at the beginning of the book combined with Altair’s constant flirting with Nasir made me legitimately think that the two of them were going to be in a romantic relationship. Arguments of queerbaiting aside, the potential relationship between these two characters had much more potential to me than Zafira and Nasirs’ mutual angst. The complementary flaws, the light and dark symbolism, and the flirty dynamic, plus my admittedly selfish desire for representation all make Altair and Nasir a much more interesting romantic combination. The two of them getting together (without the familial tie, of course) would solve the rushed feeling of Altair’s relationship with Kifa, the Mary Sue-ness of what felt like every character suddenly having magic for no reason at the end of the book, and the stagnant nature of Nasir’s relationship with Zafira. I am in no way saying that Faizal should have done this, but to me this realization filled the empty gap in my thoughts and allowed me to look at my feelings about the book as a whole in a more cohesive way.
Tl;dr: We Hunt the Flame is the case study for a well-written first book by a talented author with its combination of beautiful storytelling and unrefined technique.