I was always going to read The Daughters of Izdihar. It’s a fantasy story, inspired by modern Egyptian history, about two women who bend elements! Like Korra! But I didn’t know for sure if I was going to like it — because the synopsis I read mentioned that a man is the thing that connects these two women together. Boy, was I wrong to worry. Hadeer Elsbai’s debut novel is not only full of awesome water-bending, fire-bending, earth-bending action; it’s a feminist dynamic I’ve never seen before.
Nehal is a pampered noble who’s forced to marry a wealthy man to help pay off her father’s gambling debts. Giorgina is a poor bookshop worker whose boyfriend just broke up with her. You know where this is going: Nehal’s new husband is Giorgina’s heart-breaking ex. I thought: Straight love triangle. I got: Revolutionary friendship between two element-weaving women from very different backgrounds who happen to have a man in common. They never even hate each other! And the man? He’s actually one of the good ones. (Maybe the only good one, in the entire story.) And anyway, Nehal and Giorgina actually have a lot more in common than him. Yes, the magic, but also the fact that they’ve never been taught to use it. Their religion is divided on whether or not element-bending is a gift from the gods or blasphemy aimed at the gods. The Academy that teaches magic is off-limits to women, unless they can pay their own tuition, and have the man who’s in charge of them — their father, husband, or oldest brother — sign off on it.
Nehal rams her way into The Academy with nothing but the sheer force of her own will, which is the way Nehal basically does everything. She’s a woman who is unfamiliar with the word no, and unwilling to hear it on the rare occasion that someone does say it to her. She’s one of only a handful of women in the whole school. There’s no way Giorgina’s abusive father would give her permission to go to The Academy, even if her family could afford to send her, which they absolutely cannot do; they can hardly afford food. But what Nehal and Giorgina agree on is that women shouldn’t need a man’s permission to seek education, or do any of the other million things a woman wants to do. That starts with women getting the vote, and that’s the goal of the The Daughters of Izdihar, the activist organization they both belong to.
The Daughters of Izdihar is, in many ways, the setup for everything that will come next in Hadeer Elsbai’s duology. There’s lots of moving pieces, nudging their way around the story, to get to the place where the action is finally ready to happen. What makes the nudging special is that it’s queer and full of white-hot feminist rage. Nehal didn’t want to marry her husband because she didn’t want to marry any husband because Nehal is gay. And of course she falls in love with the one woman who is most off-limits, the leader of The Daughters of Izdihar. Nehal is also fucking furious. I have seen some angry women in fantasy stories before, but I have never felt the kind of fury pulsating off of them the way I did with Nehal. I felt, at times, like our spirits were joined, that her rage was my rage, and my rage was her rage. It’s one of the most cathartic reading experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
One of the best endorsements I can give this book is that the straight people on Goodreads are incensed that all the men in it — save one — are terrible, to the point that I’ve seen the word “misandry” tossed around more than once. Giorgina would never, tender soul, but Nehal? Yeah, if Nehal knew what misandry was, she’d proudly wear it as a badge of honor.