Based on actual events, this potent novel set in 2012 Timbuktu chronicles the clash between Islamic extremism and Sufi culture in Mali. The narration alternates between two strongly sketched protagonists, both members of the Fulani tribe: Ali, a radicalized Defender of Faith (a branch of al-Qaeda), and Kadija, an intelligent 15-year-old whose father helps guard precious ancient manuscripts. The two teenagers’ lives intersect when the radicals infiltrate Timbuktu, and although Ali and Kadija initially hate each other, their relationship evolves into a forbidden and romantically charged friendship. Amid these fictional characters looms one real-life figure: Redbeard, an infamously cruel commander of the extremist army. Davies (Hacking Timbuktu), who lived among the Fulani for more than a decade as a missionary, captures the psychological hold Redbeard wields over his young soldiers while highlighting the religious fervor of the movement; an afterword provides valuable context into the conflict and the (few) liberties Davies took in his fictionalization. Fragments of the manuscripts, interspersed throughout, offer glimpses of historical Arabic scholarship but also interrupt the pace of what’s otherwise a tense, relevant story.
Ali and Kadija have nearly opposite views of how to live their faiths and cultures, but as their worlds collide, they are drawn to each other in this ambitious novel narrated by both teens in alternating chapters. Ali, a native of Mali, is a soldier with the Defenders of Faith when they take over Timbuktu, using AK-47s to control the locals, who resist with marches, cunning, and song. Kadija sings in a musical band and is in line to inherit a position as a Guardian of Timbuktu’s priceless treasure: thousands of ancient manuscripts revered by the local Sufi population. When Ali is stationed on Kadi’s street as a guard, the ideological battle over the soul of Timbuktu becomes personal. Ali attempts to guide Kadi, while Kadi seeks to lure him out from under the influence of Redbeard, the real-life Arab leader of the Defenders. After Ali discovers the secret vault that houses the manuscripts, Kadi must save the manuscripts from destruction by the Defenders. While the chemistry between Ali and Kadi feels somewhat forced, the high-stakes action and believable setting details will likely keep readers tuned in. Their present-tense narrations alternate, interspersed with transcripts from the manuscripts. Based on true events in Mali in 2012, Davies’ novel offers villains to hate, protagonists to feel for, and a nuanced glimpse into a rich Muslim culture and society.
Though both raised in the Fulani tribe, teens Ali and Kadi are like oil and water when their paths cross in the midst of political turmoil in their home of Timbuktu, Mali. Religiously strict Ali belongs to the Defenders of Faith, a branch of al Qaeda. His current assignment is to take control of Timbuktu, destroying any opposition in the way. Equally strict, brave, and feisty is Kadi, a lover of music and literature and the daughter of a librarian. As a Guardian, Kadi must keep ancient manuscripts safe at all costs. While trying to flee with the manuscripts, Kadi ends up in mortal danger. Ali must choose where his true loyalties lie. The ending is abrupt but hopeful, and it begs for a sequel. Modern-day Timbuktu is brought to life in this timely, fast-paced story of teens falling in love despite being at war with each other. Historically rich background and elements of Islamic culture combine, providing two perspectives on the war in Mali. The novel alternates points of view between its well-developed characters. The international subject matter is unique but relevant to current events. Davies spent more than a decade with the Fulani people. A glossary and a fact and fiction section offer information on Islamic practices. VERDICT Teens will enjoy the well-drawn characters and excitement of this diverse thriller with a hint of romance. A strong choice for most YA collections.
—School Library Journal
It’s 2012, and the Defenders of Faith, a militant Islamic group, are eager to impose a stricter practice of sharia in the Malian city of Timbuktu. For Ali, fifteen-year-old jihadist and Defender, this is holy work; he understands that people will rebel against the new regime at first, but they will soon realize that music, unveiled women, and silly idolatry of dead scholars’ manuscripts are doing nothing but keeping them filthy with sin. Then there’s Kadija—a clever and cheeky Sufi Muslim girl, singer, and soon-to-be Guardian of the city’s priceless manuscripts. She knows that there is power in the city’s songs, culture, and written stories of ancient scholars, and she organizes resistance. Sharing nothing but their headstrong natures, Kadi and Ali fall into a love-hate relationship—that is, until Kadi’s life is at stake. This British import gives humanized voice to jihadists, and with its West African setting and young protagonist, it challenges preconceived notions of who jihadists are. While the romance turns into a disappointing cliché, Davies succeeds in the development of both Ali and Kadi’s characters, and readers will be impressed by Kadi’s strong, rebellious nature. A short glossary precedes the text, while other non-English terms are italicized and understandable from context; an insightful afterword differentiates fact from fiction.
—Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books