This Woven Kingdom: A Star-Crossed Romance Set in a Rich Persian-Inspired Fantasy World

Books Reviews Tahereh Mafi
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<i>This Woven Kingdom</i>: A Star-Crossed Romance Set in a Rich Persian-Inspired Fantasy World

Mythological and fairytale retellings are all the rage these days, with authors avidly mining familiar stories from Greek tragedy and European folklore for the bones they’ll use to create new tales. But while most Western readers are sure to have come across a favorite new version of Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, or even Homer’s The Odyssey, it’s only in recent years that we’ve started to see more books inspired by texts from other cultures or belief systems from places such as the Middle East or Southeast Asia.

And the results have been fairly magical, weaving in elements from long-forgotten histories and marginalized cultures in fascinating and deeply rewarding ways. (Yes, this is where I slip in my plea for everyone to run, not walk and read S.A. Chakraborty’s “Daevabad” trilogy, Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand duology, and R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War series.)

This Woven Kingdom is the latest novel in this vein, inspired by the Middle Eastern epic poem the Shahnameh, which tells a romanticized version of the history of the Persian Empire. It’s the first installment in a new trilogy from bestselling author Tahereh Mafi, probably best known for her mega-popular Shatter Me series, and it uses this history to put a refreshing twist on the story of two star-crossed lovers whose feelings for one another could well destroy not just a kingdom, but possibly humanity itself.

The long-ago fall of the Jinn known as Iblees, a being of fire who rebelled against God, has meant that his people have been cast out ever since, forsaken by the universe and forced to watch humanity (known as “Clay”) inherit the world that was once theirs. After centuries of exile and bloody war, the kingdom of Ardunia’s Fire Accords ended the fighting and established something like peace between the races. Though this tenuous cease-fire put a stop to the overt bloodshed between Clay and Jinn, the Jinn are largely forced to exist as second-class citizens in its aftermath, whose preternatural abilities are often exploited and where any use of their powers carries an automatic sentence of death.

This Woven Kingdom follows the story of Alizeh, a Jinn working as a lowly servant in a noble house who struggles with the basics of survival even as she lives under the threat of constant persecution. The mystical ice that runs through her veins is not just uncomfortable but marks her as the heir to a long-lost kingdom whose power is prophesied to one day lead to the fall of the King of Ardunia himself. But Alizah, who lives a life of grinding poverty and experiences frequent abuse at the hands of those who see themselves as her betters, dreams not of a crown, but of a quiet life in isolation, one in which she can finally stop running from threats both real and imagined.

Prince Kamran of Ardunia has been summoned home by his grandfather, a king whose reportedly declining health may mean the heir could have to start learning to rule in his own right sooner than either expected. But when Kamran accidentally meets Alizeh in a city market, he finds it difficult to forget the young woman and his attraction to her will ultimately put many of the things he’s worked toward for most of his life at risk. Alizeh, for her part, agonizes over her own feelings for the prince, as well as the implications of the prophecy that has guided her actions for most of her life—and which cost her both her parents as well.

The star-crossed romance that slowly develops between the two (almost despite themselves) is fun to watch unfold—even if, it does at times have a vaguely “instalove” vibe. But their banter is charming and, given the many cosmic and mythological elements already at play in this story, no one will likely be surprised when it’s inevitably revealed in a later installment that they’re both destined to be drawn to one another. It also helps that Alizeh and Kamran’s infatuation with one another is but one small piece in a much larger, more expansive story, which wrestles with geopolitical questions as deftly as it introduces magical dresses capable of protecting their wearer.

As heroines go, it’s easy to love Alizeh, a talented seamstress (and surprisingly skilled fighter) with a talent for creating delicate, beautiful garments out of the scraps others throw away. Desperately lonely, her search for connection is often thwarted by her low status as both the lowest form of servant (known as a snoda) and a Jinn, neither of which are identities that lend themselves easily to making friends. Yet, Alizeh remains kind and considerate throughout, offering a helping hand and a considerate heart even toward those that might try and do her physical harm. Reader, I love her, is what I’m saying. and I’m not entirely sure that Kamran deserves her. (At least, not yet.) Though he, at least, demonstrates enough growth to indicate he might be on his way there.

Mafi’s worldbuilding is lush and detailed throughout, from the dark mythological history of the Jinn race to the competing needs of multiple kingdoms simply trying to survive in a world of dwindling resources. (Part of the reason for Arundia’s constant friction with a neighboring Southern kingdom, for example, is that it simply does not have enough access to fresh water, and must import giant cisterns of it for its people.) Both Alizeh and Kamran must face up to predetermined futures that neither particularly wants, and make difficult choices based on more than simply their own desires for happiness.

This Woven Kingdom’s cliffhanger ending raises many questions that only the series’ second installment will be able to answer, yet the story’s decision to end just when all the various plot twists start colliding with one another is the sort of bold choice you have to respect. Here’s to spending more time in this world, as soon as possible.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.