Possibilities and Pitfalls: Building a Fantasy Series in Arabic

Award-winning Emirati science-fiction author Noura Al Noman, with two books published in her Ajwan series, looks at the possibilities and pitfalls of a new Arabic fantasy series by Islam Idris:

By Noura Al Noman

I stumbled upon this trilogy at the 2014 Sharjah International Book Fair. Before that, I had no idea we had Arabic fantasy books, whether in the Western sense or even the 1001 Nights style.

3 books

The three books — Legend of the Return, Legend of the Priest, and Legend of the Departure — are part of a series by Islam Idris, published by the Kuwaiti publisher Platinum Books between 2012 and 2014. I could see that it was written for young adults, but I am not certain how the author or the publisher categorized it.

The story revolves around the eternal struggle between good and evil. Islam Idris built a complete world populated by several races spread across a large continent. From humans who live in empires, kingdoms, cities, and towns, to the “Mounted Rangers” (my humble translation of Al-Fursan Al-Jawaalah), a mysterious, magical race which had severed its relations with humans several generations back. Then there are the “Maurizor,” a race similar to the Rangers, but fairy-like, and both races live in harmony with the land and nature, from which they acquire their magical powers.

The story begins with rumors of the return of the “Nazeel,” ugly, barbarian creatures defeated in a previous wave by the unity of humans and Rangers. Events flit from towns to cities to royal courts, where everyone speculates on the truth of the stories and how best to prepare for the attacks. Besides these races, there are other magical creatures which have a role to play, like dragons, magical steeds, and giants.

At the end of Book 3, there is no mention of a fourth installment, but I have no doubt there will be one.

In Book 2, the battles intensify, resulting in the slaughter of innocents and decimation of armies. Nothing stands before the Nazeel, who seem to have been sent by the “Dark Priest” to take revenge upon the humans who had thwarted his plans in the past. The Rangers already expect this war to end badly for everyone, and have a backup plan of “returning” to their old lands, where they await the rise of a hero to lead them to victory. Book 3 ends very badly for the humans and their allies, as the Dark Priest manipulates giants, “dwarves” and the traitors among humans and Maurizor to conquer the land. At the end of Book 3, there is no mention of a fourth installment, but I have no doubt there will be one.

Before I write my thoughts about the books, I beg the indulgence of the reader as I relate my knowledge of fantasy books, which started early in my youth. For more than thirty years I have read English science fiction & fantasy (SFF), beginning with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit, which built the basis for that which came later. I have enjoyed Terry Brooks Shannara series, and followed Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time for twenty years. I cannot list everything I have read by David Eddings, Tad Williams, Reymond Feist, Janny Wurtz, Margaret Weiss, Tracey Hickman, Terry Goodkind, Brandon Sanderson, Anne McCaffrey, Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and of course George Martin’s Song of Ice & Fire. That’s more than 90 fantasy books I have read, and hundreds more I have not.

These are epics which relate the war between good and evil, whether through one person or a group; a normal protagonist who has had destiny thrust upon him, or one with latent super powers who has to pick up the banner for good. These tales are very similar to each other, and there is no escaping a book borrowing from an older book. However, each story has distinct characteristics making it unique and memorable.

Writing fantasy is both easy and difficult. Easy, because when you write about a fictional world, with your own rules, then no critic can say what is right and what is unreasonable. Difficult, because building worlds is both an art and a science, and no one can possibly comprehend its depth and attention to detail, unless they have personally gone through the experience. That is why I applaud Idris for his bold attempt to build a new world and populate it with so many races, settings, and cultures. And because I have read so much fantasy, I can’t help but compare it with other works, which is unfair, since “world-building” in Arabic SFF is still in its infancy, and we have to give it time to mature.

Furthermore, to create a series of books means the readers will be asking for more, and that is the greatest gift to Arabic literature.

The story is timeless, where good people take it upon themselves to fight evil. Readers who were never exposed to fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings will be fascinated by the detailed settings, clothes, and weapons. The combat scenes are described in detail, as if they were being played out on a screen. Furthermore, to create a series of books means the readers will be asking for more, and that is the greatest gift to Arabic literature. There is no single protagonist in the story to place all of our hopes on; there are many characters from the various races. This has resulted in two-dimensional, stereotypical characters, and I personally couldn’t empathize with any of them. But for a young adult who has little to no fantasy to read, I think this is a great series of books.

The plot line was structured well, although I think there were a few parts where some rewriting is necessary to fix the timeline. Probably the two biggest comments I have is: 1) as a writer, just because I know of all of these races from other books, I don’t need to cram all of them in one story. Idris didn’t even leave out mermaids in his trilogy. Furthermore, having the Maurizor mentally link with their magical steeds by attaching their hair to the horse’s mane is just too “Avatar” for me. Furthermore, I think using the names of characters from other books (like Arwen, Haldir and Galadriel from Lord of the Rings) is called plagiarism. 2) The dialogue needs to be heavily edited to move the plot forward. Seven to eight pages of a useless conversation between gods who have absolutely no bearing on the plot is wasted space which could have been used to flesh out the characters — this occurs time and time again. Some of the dialogue is so long, it sounds like someone speaking from a pulpit.

Still, this remains the only Arabic fantasy series which I know of, and I look forward to Book 4 in the series.

This first appeared on My Parallel Universes.