I’ll be blunt about Hadeer Elsbai’s The Daughters of Izdihar. There are some serious problems with this book. There’s the fact that it ends on a massive cliffhanger. (This is the first half of a duology.) There’s the fact that most of the characters, especially the men, are utterly repellent misogynists. There’s the the fact that the entire magic system is criminally underdeveloped, even though one of the protagonist’s goals is to study that very magic system. And yet, in spite of all of that, I still want to know what happens in part two.
The Daughters of Izdihar follows two protagonists, the impulsive and domineering Nehal and the more circumspect Giorgina. Nehal spends much of the narrative full of (rightful) anger at her circumstances. All she wants is to learn more about her water magic and use it to defend her country. Instead, she learns that she is going to be married to a rich aristocrat she’s never met so that her dowry can be used to pay off the family’s debts. Giorgina, meanwhile, lives on the other end of the class structure. Her poor family needs her income to survive, but she doesn’t mind that—what she minds is her very conservative father’s dictates on her behavior and that of her sisters. When she’s not at work, Giorgina agitates with a women’s rights group or spends time with her rich boyfriend. Unfortunately for Giorgina, that rich boyfriend is the same man that Nehal has just been forced to marry.
From that inauspicious start, we watch as Nehal uses her force of personality to get what she wants out of the marriage (permission and funding to learn how to use her magic) before she pushes her way into the same women’s rights group Giorgina has been working for. The two seem set for conflict but, thankfully for all involved, Nehal has no romantic feelings or attraction for her unwilling husband. The major plot points instead focus on escalating episodes of violence. Whenever the eponymous Daughters of Izdihar show up to protest or march, police and anti-magic/anti-women groups show up to provoke violence, landing the women in increasingly dire straights. Other readers have pointed out that Giorgina, Nehal, and others turn to men to get out of these predicaments and found this problematic. I agree to a certain extent but the world that Elsbai created for her characters doesn’t allow for them to save themselves…at least until enough women lose their tempers that they might actually start a revolution to claim their rights.
There are things in this book that could’ve been written with more nuance but I am very curious to see if Nehal, Giorgina, and their allies blow everything up in part two. Readers who want more realistic and believable depictions of male characters or more magic should steer clear of The Daughters of Izdihar. Readers who are intriguied should probably wait for part to to come out; I really wasn’t kidding about the cliffhanger at the end.