Fire Boy by Sami Shah
Rehman and his wife, Mumtaz, live a simple, routine life in the Pakistani city of Karachi. They have no children of their own, but their quiet days are lived with a steady pattern of work, morning walks and cooking. But when Rehman goes for one of his walks one morning, strange things start to happen; one thing leads to another and one night, Rehman is visited by a djinn who leaves with Rehman a child, named “Wahid.” Fire Boy picks up seventeen years later; Wahid is a lanky teenager with breathing problems, who saw his first djinn very early on in his childhood. He’s living a seemingly normal life now though; he’s like any other boy. He loves comics, has two best friends with whom he talks about things like Dungeons & Dragons, parties and girls- but little does Wahid know that his life is going to be turned upside down very, very soon. When tragedy hits, the unassuming Wahid is thrown full-force into a dangerous, terrifying situation.
Fire Boy has a fast-paced, gripping plot full of so many settings all around Pakistan’s urban capital, Karachi. Despite being a “foreign” book (I hate that phrase, but understand that this is how the book may be categorized), Shah’s portrayal of urban life is universal. Karachi has its own set of issues, but at large, it’s a lot like any other city. It’s “foreign,” sure, but the portrayal is relatable, and even profound. Shah provides an incredibly nuanced, complex view of Pakistan as a whole. The novel’s main character is perhaps in the lower-upper-class, or the upper-middle-class bracket, and has privileges that most people do not have. It’s not a story about poverty or the hardships of living in a non-Western society, even though I imagine it’s incredibly tempting to take what people expect you to write (for example, stories about poverty and terrorism) and do the complete opposite, while still staying true to the essence of your setting.
Let me expand: there aren’t many wildly popular Pakistani stories out there that reach Western society, but those that do are almost always monstrous portrayals. You read them and wonder if that’s what hell on earth looks like. Oh, the misogyny! Oh, the poverty! Oh, the barbaric violence and terrorism! And look, I’m not naive- nor am I blind. All those things are very valid, very true aspects of Pakistani society- but that’s not all there is. Shah’s main character is in a privileged position; he’s not impoverished, he is not a woman, and he isn’t having conflicting issues with religion. This is a fantasy story that many teenagers – brown or not – will relate to. But at the same time, none – NONE – of the problems in society and community are ignored. We have background discussions of corruption, the bitterness among citizens, portrayals of poverty, misogyny and hardships without them ever seeming preachy, without them ever seeming like “this is what the book is about.” Talk about terrorism as if it’s routine-life, the little details about what teachers say in school out of prejudice- all so authentic, so genuine, so true to some of my own experiences without ever seeming like they were there because they had to be. It was there in addition to a very solid, gripping horror/paranormal/urban-fantasy story, and that’s what made Karachi so real.
Fire Boy is genuinely terrifying- or at least it was to me. It’s chock full of Islamic and South Asian mythology; things like djinn (entities in Islamic mythology which are made of smokeless fire, some evil and some not) and chudails or pichal peris (witches, often disguised as ethereal, beautiful women whose feet are backwards). These are creatures who have haunted my dreams ever since I was a child. In Pakistan – which is an overwhelmingly majority-Muslim country – everyone has a djinn story. Everyone. Which is not to say that everyone’s superstitious and believes in the supernatural; it just means that it’s a topic everyone has something to contribute to. When our parents didn’t like us playing out on the street too late, they used to say, “There are djinn and chudails in the trees! Don’t stay out late; they’ll get you!” Driving around late at night in Pakistan in an area not too densely populated, every lone woman you see on the side gets labelled pichal peri (“Do you see her feet? Are they facing backwards?”) – sometimes seriously, other times by people like my father who just like to scare the shit out of their kids.
I don’t know if these creatures and how Shah plays around with the tropes surrounding them will terrify someone unfamiliar with the lore, but they did me. I will say that Shah does a wonderful job of relaying “foreign” information to the reader. The explanations of the lore are done seamlessly without every seeming info-dumpy, and because the lore that is specifically South Asian (like the chudails) has such little written material on it, he has a lot of room to play around with their entities. Shah wields the lore skillfully; this is the only horror novel that managed to keep me up at night, and I say that without any sort of exaggeration.
But despite all my raving and gushing, Fire Boy has its flaws. I definitely think the characters could have been developed more, and it could also have more meat to its structure; so, I would have liked more descriptions about Wahid’s daily life, his friendships, his relationship with his parents. There could have been more exploration outside of the fantasy aspect, just to add more substance to the people. I also think Wahid’s disability could have been explored more; in the second half, I felt that it was largely ignored and his vulnerabilities are what made him such an intriguing, gripping character in the beginning that I was a little bummed. But outside of these flaws, Fire Boy is beautifully written, extremely nuanced and just a solid, solid book.
Finally: often in talks about diverse representation in literature or the media, people put aside their biases and take a more political, more formal stance- I do that too. It’s great to look at an important topic objectively, but do you understand the depth of what you’re talking about unless you’ve experienced what representation will mean? I don’t think so. Fire Boy was not an emotional read with regards to content, but I was emotional reading it. Because I related more to this shy, introverted, awkward young brown kid living in a country full of so many contrasts than I ever have reading about anything else. I’ve been a proponent of diversity in literature for a long time now, but I don’t think I understood the extent of its importance until I felt what this book made me feel, and for that alone, I owe Sami Shah everything.