“You are going somewhere,” Mama Ali intones, closing her eyes. I glance at her son in disbelief. Ali grins wide, his teeth showing pearly white against his earth-brown skin.
“I was before you stopped me,” I agree.
Mama Ali heaves a theatrical sigh, squeezing my hand rather painfully. “Somewhere important,” she clarifies. She tilts her head as if listening. And Mama Ali hears a lot — she has her pulse on the happenings of Karolene. Maybe there’s something she knows. Has she gotten news about the League? Or the Ghost?
She drops my hand, sitting back with a gasp. “Run!”
“What?” I glance over my shoulder, instinctively looking for signs of danger. The market is busy, filled with people laughing and bargaining over the night’s catch. There are dozens of stalls crammed together, aisle upon aisle, but nothing and no one seems out of place. There’s no sign of either the sultan’s guards or hired mercenaries.
“You are late,” Mama Ali cries.
Hitomi is a Promise, a magic user who hasn’t been formally trained — although her parents have taught her the basics, in secret. At the beginning of Sunbolt she’s working with a secret organisation, trying to undermine the evil Arch Mage who controls the land of Karolene.
From the beginning, there are hints at uncomfortable politics within the Shadow League, not to mention the fact that Hitomi herself is still regarded as a foreigner in the land where she’s lived all her life. But despite the animosity she faces day to day, Hitomi is determined to play her part in making the world a better place: we meet her as members of the League are planning to rescue a noble family from the displeasure of Arch Mage Blackflame, at great personal risk.
When the job goes wrong, Hitomi is captured and imprisoned. Her resulting journey pushes her to use her raw magical talent to save herself and others, a process that utterly exhausts her. She’s insufficiently trained and poorly prepared for such a role, and the narrative doesn’t give her an unrealistic level of power or gloss over the need for extensive recovery after such exertion, which I found refreshing.
Hitomi is also forced to throw her lot in with a Breather called Val. Breathers are particularly dangerous kind of vampire, and as such, generally demonised within their society. I really liked Val, and the way their relationship developed was charming; I hope we’ll see a lot more of him in future books.
It would be impossible to review this book without at least touching on the ethnic diversity: Khanani herself has Pakistani heritage; Karolene has a middle eastern feel; Hitomi has grown up as an outsider facing a constant undercurrent of hostility. In her experiences with Val, though, Hitomi is given the opportunity to experience privilege from the other side.
This book was an instant favourite, and I know I’ll reread it soon. The story is pacy and action-packed, but despite some thoroughly despicable characters along the way, Khanani manages to maintain a broadly optimistic tone. This first volume is quite short, and I really didn’t want it to end, so I’m glad there will be more in the series.
Memories of Ash, the sequel to Sunbolt, is due to be published this summer.