Fantasy Book Review: Gifting Fire by Alina Boyden

Fantasy Book Review

TitleGifting Fire
Author: Alina Boyden
Publication Date: April 13, 2021
Genres: Epic Fantasy
ShelvesFemale-authored, Female-fronted, Transgender 

Last year's Stealing Thunder was a book I didn’t just want to be good, I needed to be good - to set the example, and to open the shelves for more books like it. I put some pretty heavy expectations on Alina Boyden, but she delivered a book I feel like I’ve been waiting my entire life to read. Its take on gender and the portrayal of transgender lives was exquisite, the world-building was wonderful, and the romance was absolutely delightful.

The battle has been won, but the war is just beginning.

The tagline for Gifting Fire speaks as much to the plot of conquest and warfare as to Razia's journey of individual acceptance. Having claimed her gender and her identity in the first book, she finds herself struggling with what it means to be accepted as a woman in a patriarchal society. There's a sense of 'be careful what you wish for' in that she finally finds herself accepted - and treated - as a royal princess, expected to serve as an offering to seal an alliance, to put duty ahead of love, and to be sequestered as the perfect wife, rarely seen and even more seldom heard. Denied her autonomy, Razia fights for not just transgender acceptance but female agency, and that struggle is much what makes this story so exciting.

What else makes this second volume so exciting is the addition of Hina, a rival princess, and her entourage, all of whom are hijra sisters. Razia, Sakshi, and Lakshmi find themselves with allies, with an adopted family, and with friends who understand the conflict between expectations and identity. The dynamic between them is absolutely fantastic, with moments of humor to lighten the overall weight of the drama, and the addition of their river zahhaks adds another layer of action to the tale. As exciting as the climax of the first book was, the aerial battles here, especially with the weaponization of zahhaks who have no breath, is epic in the best sense of the word.

At first, I was a bit saddened at Arjun's reduced role in the story, usurped by Karim, but I like that it isolated Razia and allowed us to see her as a strong, independent woman, working with a cadre of sisters who are very much her equal. As for Karim, I think Boyden did an exemplary job of exploring and developing his character, playing upon our emotions and making us question our own assumptions about him. Without wading too deep into spoiler territory, the themes of spousal abuse are almost as cutting as those of the patriarchy. Razia's father is granted a little more depth and compassion here, even if it's hard to reconcile the Sultan with the father, but it's Sikander who is the biggest surprise. I refuse to say more, but his character arc had me in tears more than once.

Speaking of tears, dammit but I've never cried so many times over the course of a story's final hundred pages. Joy, sorrow, triumph, pain, hope, despair, Boyden puts us through the wringer, forcing us to turn pages faster and faster to learn how it all ends. There was one moment in particular where I just had to drop the book and walk away, a sorrow I was ill-equipped to deal with, but she's not a monster and you have to have hope for things to work out. Gifting Fire is somehow an even better book than the first, and one that's even more important in every respect. I don't know at this point if there will be a third book, but I'm not prepared to say goodbye.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀ 

My sincere thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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