Fantasy is one of those genres of fiction that can be set in any world you can imagine. Authors can take as much, or as little, inspiration, from the real world as they like. The only boundary to the world in the book is the writer’s imagination. The setting and world can be as realistic as possible, adhering to real-world physics and the like. Or, an author can go completely wild and show us something with no resemblance to our world. So, why is it that so much fantasy just looks like medieval Europe with the addition of magic or strange creatures? Many, many books are written by cisgender, heterosexual, white men and feature cisgender, heterosexual, white protagonists. There are so many other voices out there, authors of diverse ethnicities, sexualities, and an entire spectrum of genders. Their books deserve to be read too.
Alina Boyden is not a cisgender, heterosexual, white man. In fact, Boyden is a trans woman, a relevant fact considering her first heroine. Her debut novel, Stealing Thunder, is a more than welcome addition to the fantasy genre, heavily inspired her own real-world experiences and interests. Prior to the novel’s publication, Boyden had already let an extraordinarily accomplished life. As a trans woman and client of the ACLU, Boyden’s lawsuit won healthcare coverage for transgender workers in Wisconsin. But her activism did not stop there. Currently, she also works to improve the lives and protect the rights of trans women living in Indian and Pakistan. As such, she splits her time between South Asia and the US. Highly intelligent, Boyden has also made transgender rights and history the subject of per Ph.D. studies in anthropology. Writing a fun fantasy novel featuring a trans woman heroine is just another way for Boyden to prove that being trans is normal and natural. According to her author bio, she is also a pilot. Because some people are really just that cool.
Considering her background and experiences, it follows that the setting of Stealing Thunder would take its inspiration from Indian and Pakistan and the transgender communities which have resided there for thousands of years. Specifically, the book appears to be inspired by the Mughal and other so-called gunpowder empires from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Notably, the setting in the novel, a nation called Registan, is missing any European influences, which is fairly refreshing for a fantasy novel. Registan is one of many kingdoms and empires in Boyden’s setting, but our characters spend the majority of time in one of its major cities, Bikampur. Boyden’s description of the city is vibrant, and it is very easy to close one’s eyes and picture the streets and buildings. More so when our character fly over rooftops on the backs of zahhaks, feathered dragons trained for aerial dogfights by the nobles of the book’s world. Although the novel is inspired by a period in time hundreds of years ago, some aspects of the society are still very relevant. Many do not accept trans people or acknowledge their correct gender, the men in power do not hold women as their equal, and conflicts between powerful people threaten everyone else.
The main protagonist of Stealing Thunder is Razia Khan, and the novel is told entirely from her first-person point-of-view, meaning spend every page in her head. We see every thought and filter events through her perception. Razia is a hijra—a member of a transfeminine community of people who were assigned male at birth—living in Bikampur. Known by the people from her past by her deadname, Salim, Razia is the former crown prince of a neighboring kingdom, the Sultanate of Nizam. As a male member of the royal family, Razia was not permitted to live the life her soul yearned for. Rather than face the constant discrimination and beatings caused by being forced to live in the incorrect body, Razia fled her home. Stealing Thunder picks up roughly four years after her flight, and some time after her transition. At the start of the book, Razia works as a dancer, courtesan, and sex worker earning money to support her community. At night, however, Razia is also a master thief, stealing priceless items from her clients in the dead of night. As intriguing as a character as she is, Razia is far perfect, with her mistakes helping to drive the plot forward at times. However, Razia is a woman who has no doubts about who she is and who she is meant to be.
The actual plot of Stealing Thunder revolves around Razia and her relationship to the characters we meet along the way. While some events are certainly out of her control and not directly connected to her, her former identity as Salim proves central to the conflict. The book begins with her slowly falling in love with one of her clients, Arjun, one of the princes of Registan. Arjun, in turn, falls in love with her, fully accepting that Razia is trans and never considering that this fact would make her any less than a woman. At first, Razia, and the reader, question his motives. But, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that his love is real and genuine. Their relationship is strained, of course, by Arjun’s declaration that he will catch this master thief in Bikampur. The first half of the novel follows their game of cat and mouse as their love deepens. However, the plot quickly moves away from thievery in the night as the secret of Razia’s former life begins to leak. As more and more people realize who she used to be, the conflict grows. With the growing conflict, Razia is forced to prove her cunning and intelligence again and again. In truth, the plot could be a standard fantasy plot, but it is elevated by having Razia as our heroine.
Like any book, especially a debut novel, Stealing Thunder is not without its fair share of criticism. However, any criticism I have did not diminish from my enjoyment of Razia’s story. As mentioned earlier in this review, Razia’s mistakes help drive the plot forward. However, some of these mistakes are more believable than others. At the start of the novel, Razia has been living without anyone discovering her former identity for years. However, mere chapters into the story, Razia is letting things slip and confirming people’s speculations. It is hard to believe that she has not been discovered previously based on the behavior we see. There is also the matter of Karim, an antagonistic character who is positioned as a major side character on Razia’s side. As Razia admits to Arjun, Karim raped her while she was still Prince Salim. The book makes it very clear that he does not regret it and, in fact, appears to still hold those inclinations. While he is also a prince and relatively untouchable, the novel almost down plays the act and positions him as one of the heroes by the end of the story. Lastly, towards the end of the novel Razia does have an eleven-year-old act as a child soldier. The book makes it clear she has been trained for battle, but she is a child. As such, she cannot consent to being a soldier or make an informed decision. Razia argues that it is necessary, given the context, and the book does not disagree.
After coming up with the list of criticisms above, what struck me is that they could have been applied to any book. Many fantasy books, especially young adult fiction, feature characters who are essential child solders. Main characters make dumb mistakes all the time for the purpose of advancing the plot. More than one fantasy novel has featured a rapist character, and, just like in real life, they do not always receive their just desserts. Looking back at my thoughts on the novel, it is clear just what an accomplishment Stealing Thunder truly is. This is a book about treating trans people as perfectly, naturally, normal. However, just as Razia has to fight for recognition and acceptance, the battle for humanity and compassion in our world is still ongoing. I am excited to see where Boyden takes us next.
Stealing Thunder may be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 32 days (this is not reflective of the book’s length or pace, but my own fatigue during the month of June; actual read time is likely closer to 6 days)
Next on the List: The City We Became, by N. K. Jemisin.