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The Alamaxa Duology
by Hadeer Elsbai

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted March 5, 2024

The Daughters of Izdihar / The Weavers of Alamaxa

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Hadeer Elsbai is an Egyptian-American writer and librarian. Born in New York City, she grew up being shuffled between Queens and Cairo. The Daughters of Izdihar is her debut novel, published last year. The follow-up book will be released in a couple of weeks, and I have an advance copy of it from Net Galley. The setting is an alternate world reminiscent of Egypt and adjacent kingdoms, although I'm not sure the time frame the author intended, nor how close to any actual Egyptian history there might be. There are fantasy elements, the "weavers" similar to other stories of people able to manipulate the elements of water, fire, air, earth, etc. I know that sounds familiar, what with the new Last Airbender adaptation on Netflix, but the Nickelodeon show was not the first to deal with the trope, nor will these books be the last. Elsbai incorporates many political and social issues into this story, with the weavers being just one part.

The main characters include Nehal Darweesh, a wealthy young noble woman who lives in Ramina, on the shores of the White Middle Sea. She is a waterweaver who loves to walk on the beach and practice her craft. Her wealth derives from her merchant father, although that is in jeopardy due to his drinking and gambling. Her parents have arranged for her to marry Niccolo Baldinotti, the son of the richest man in Alamaxa, the capital city of Ramsawa, to the northeast of Ramina. The River Izdihar bisects the city of Alamaxa. Both sets of parents spring the announcement on the young couple suddenly, giving them little time to prepare, or protest. Neither Nehal or Nico want the marriage. She is of a mind to never marry, never to have children. He already has a lover, Giorgina Shukry, but she is from a poor family his parents would never approve of. In fact, Nico's father knows some incriminating facts about Giorgina, which he has revealed to Nico, but Nico doesn't care. He still wants to marry Giorgina, as hopeless as that prospect is. Nehal and Nico's marriage proceeds, after Nehal has come to an agreement with him. He will sign for her, and provide the expenses for her studies at the newly reopened Alamaxa Weaving Academy. In return, she alters their marriage agreement allowing him to keep Georgina as concubine. When offered the opportunity, Giorgina refuses.

Nehal first meets Giorgina at a meeting of the Daughters of Izdihar, a women's rights organization created by Malak Mamdouh, who is a windweaver. Malak is also from a wealthy family, whose father allowed her political inclinations. The Daughters not only campaign for women's suffrage, they also provide free health clinics, schooling, and food to the poor. The right for women to vote is what brings Nehal to the group. She wasn't aware of their other activities until later, especially after reading some articles in their newsletter, The Vanguard, some of which Giorgina had written under a pseudonym. Giorgina had met Nico through her job at a bookshop. He was an avid reader, particularly interested in history. Women could not do anything without approval from their father, husband, or other male family member or guardian. Giorgina worked outside the home, as did her older sister, because the family needed the extra income. Women from affluent families were not expected to work, but to take care of the home and support their spouses. Malak had gone as far as any woman could hope for, but she was a pariah within the system she was trying to change. Even though Nico paid for Nehal to attend the academy, the men weavers got in free. So, an emphasis on women's rights, rejection of the patriarchy, as well as a growing sentiment against weavers, sets the scene for some very dramatic events.

Ramsawa had an elected Parliament, all men of course, with a royal family that has little power. In the past, weavers had been utilized for construction projects, moving earth and stone for buildings and roads, fireweavers for clearing land, windweavers aiding sailors and other occupations. That changed after a war with Talyana, to the west of the White Middle Sea. Edua Badawi was a soldier trained at the Weaving Academy, one who had inexplicably mastered (but not controlled) all four elements. She was responsible for the destruction of all Talyana, collapsing the peninsula below the sea, and her power spilled over to a portion of Zirana, a kingdom to the south. The Academy was closed, and while weavers were not punished, they knew to keep a low profile. Most of the Ramsawa Parliament was now anti-weaving, and things get worse when Zirana outlaws all weaving, campaigning for war against any other country that harbored weavers. It was the main reason Alamaxa had grudgingly reopened their academy, so as to have adequate defenses against Zirana.

One of the better things about the book is that while it is easy to see who the villains are, the people who are obviously the "good guys" are not without fault. Nehal is blind to some things, arrogant of the privilege her family's wealth had made possible, condescending to others. She is impetuous, quick to speak and act, which often makes things worse for her and others. Georgina is poor, her father cruel to her and her mother and sisters. She is shy and reserved, hesitant to act, and had been trying to keep her earthweaving secret. Malak was focused on her work, secretive about plans, wanting to control everything. Nico was in some ways a coward. Aware of his privilege but wanting to bury himself in his books, and most definitely avoid the wrath of his father. They all change throughout, but maybe not enough, or not soon enough. Even the men who could be considered allies were loath to rock the boat, knowing things needed to change, but afraid of the consequences of too much change too soon. At the end of this book, Zirana's army is on the outskirts of Alamaxa, while Nehal has been kidnapped by a man she had clashed with before, but I don't want to give any other details about their previous encounters. If I was to do that I would have to reveal a new weaving ability Nehal has discovered about herself..

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Posted March 5, 2024
The Weavers of Alamaxa will be published in two weeks, March 19. I received an advance digital copy from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Everyone thinks Nehal has run away from possible criminal prosecution. After several days she wakes, realizes she had been drugged, and that she is in Zirana. Scientists have developed a serum that is designed to inhibit weaving ability. Not really take the ability away, just make it intolerably painful for the weaver to try. The Zirani king and queen want Nehal to be an example of the efficacy of their drug, to rid the lands of weaving forever. Fortunately for Nehal, there are rebels who want to overturn their rule. At a state dinner where Nehal was to be displayed to others, rebels attack, which allows Nehal to escape. She wanders the city, wondering how she can get back to Ramsawa, with no money, no friends, no allies. Except she does have allies, one of the rebel leaders finding her hiding in an alley. They take a boat to a port north of Ramina, then travel to Alamaxa, arriving just as Malak and Giorgina are addressing Parliament.

A lot more action in this book, but I don't want to say much about that. There is still a lot of anti-weaving sentiment in Parliament, which is echoed by the royal family. The Zirana attacks have forced many to evacuate, including many Parliament members. Nehal is still subject to the charges against her, no matter how Nico and others vouch for her, saying her actions had not only been justified, but also misunderstood. Nehal, Malak, and Giorgina are forced into hiding, with occasional excursions to get information, and to gain support from friends. Rasida, Queen of Zirana, comes to present their solution to end weaving, but she is kidnapped, and unfortunately killed, which brings King Hali to Alamaxa. The Ramsawa royal family, having disbanded Parliament, acedes to Hali's demands. Zirana may not have weavers, but their army has artillery and tanks. Can the weavers stand against such firepower? Yes, they can, but that's something else I won't go into detail about.

No one really understood how some people became weavers but others not. The "gift" of weaving supposedly came from the Tetrad, a group of four gods; Rekumet (fire), Setuket (earth), Nefudet (wind), and Tefuret (water). Some thought weavers stole those powers from the gods, and thus were blasphemous, traitors to the gods. How was Edua Badawi able to channel all four elements, and could that possibly happen again? Nico had found some letters Edua had written to someone else, although he wasn't sure who, he only had their first name. Giorgina pored over those letters multiple times, trying to figure it out, since she suspected she might be able to be more than just an earthweaver. If that happened, could she control that power, or would she end up like Edua, killing herself from remorse? Again, I won't reveal the answer to that. At book's end, Parliament has been restored, the royal family demoted to ineffectulness, banned from Alamaxa. Malak is going to campaign to be the first woman in Parliament, and Giorgina gets a job offer from the Alamaxa Daily. I think Nehal will be content to use her money to support the efforts of the Daughters of Izdihar. She is not likely to get support for a position in Parliament, but neither would she want that. This is identified as just a duology, although I would welcome another book to see how Alamaxa, Ramsawa, and the now Republic of Zirana fare under the new conditions. I preferred the political and social slant to the first book, but both are good, both recommended.


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Hadeer Elsbai

Daughters: 1/10/23
Weavers: 3/19/24

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