Intisar Khanani has a new book! And it’s out today! Can you believe our good fortune? The Theft of Sunlight is the first wholly new Intisar Khanani book I’ve read in what feels like a thousand years, and it felt like coming home.
The Theft of Sunlight is a companion novel to Thorn that doesn’t (in my opinion) require prior knowledge of Thorn in order to read it. It follows Rae, a country girl who comes to the royal court and becomes handmaiden to the new queen, Alyrra (Thorn from Thorn!). There she begins to learn how to navigate the treacherous world of the monarchy and aristocracy, all while trying to discover who or what is behind the epidemic of child-snatching that has been plaguing Menaiya. Determined to recover the lost children, or at least find answers for their families, Rae faces the dangers and intrigues the city has to offer — and the confusing, irritating charms of a thief called Bren.
Intisar Khanani’s trademark as a writer is “good girls trying their best.” I felt such affection for Rae almost immediately — she’s spent much of her life being told that she’s not good enough because of her clubfoot, and she is fiercely protective of her sister, who can do magic. (It is important that nobody finds this out, because Rae’s family doesn’t trust the Circle of Mages and doesn’t want them anywhere near Niya.) When she goes to court — initially to visit her cousin Melly, who has married up — she hopes to have the chance to push more powerful people into doing something about the child snatchers. She emphatically does not want to be the queen’s attendant. Like, at all. But she can’t pass up the opportunity to gain the ear of the queen, who (presumably) can pursue the child snatcher problem in a more organized way; so she agrees to this life that she knows will be hostile and unfamiliar to her. She is a good girl. I want the best for this good girl.
Like her past novels, The Theft of Sunlight has its fair share of darkness and moral ambiguity: not just the ever-present threat of the child-snatchers, but Rae’s own feeling that she is becoming morally compromised by staying at the court, by spending time with Bren and other members of the city’s underworld, by spending time following the queen around rather than pursuing the child snatchers. But there’s something tremendously comforting about Khanani’s writing, despite the darkness, and I think it has to do with her careful, weighty articulation of values.
“Bren. Would it have been all right if I angered you and you punched me instead?”
“No.” His voice is suddenly hard, brooking no argument.
“Then why is it fine if I punch you?”
He looks at me, and the silence spreads out between us until I feel like I’m drowning.
“You see,” I say, my voice hoarse in my throat.
“No,” he says again. “Rae, there are certainly times when a woman punching a man is an irredeemable act of violence. When she is stronger, or more vicious, and she uses her actions to abuse him. But that wasn’t what happened…. In a fight between you and me, I would always win. We both know that. So your hitting me — it’s a sign of trust, in its way, that you could lash out and know that I wouldn’t hurt you back. It wasn’t abuse.”
“You’re right. I knew you wouldn’t hurt me back.” It hadn’t even occurred to me. “That doesn’t change the fact that I wanted to hurt you.”
“And you’d do it again?”
“Then it is not all that you are, and it doesn’t have to define you. It’s something you did, which you regret. It’s not actually you.”
I look at him, his words clicking together in my mind: that this is the difference between me and [spoiler character], for his is a practiced violence, and mine was a single act, regretted. That I am not the same as him, for all that I was willing to let my anger ride me as it does him. I am and can and will be different; I do not have to let this break me.
I’ve seen plenty of books where a female protagonist hits a guy character who’s not specifically her enemy, but rarely have I seen the characters exploring the moral implications of the act afterward. I just appreciated this conversation so much! Rae knows that hitting someone in anger isn’t in line with her values, and the book gives her the time to explore what that action does and doesn’t mean about her.
Trust and truth are major themes in The Theft of Sunlight. Along a vast number of axes, Rae doesn’t know whom she can trust: Who will reliably accommodate her disability? Who will tell her what she needs to know in order to be Alyrra’s attendant? Who can share information about the child snatchers without placing Rae or themselves in danger? Who will tell her the truth, and who will lie? And the answers are, nearly always, complicated. Coming from a background where she has been able — most of the time — to speak the truth herself and trust the truth of what others tell her, Rae struggles to adapt to her new environment, where everyone around her is keeping some secrets, and she is, too.
I would like, also, to shout out the fact that a big piece of solving the mystery is TAX RECORDS. This is going to sound like a joke, but I am genuinely so high on this fact. Like, that’s so real! Financial records genuinely and truly answer questions, and point up new avenues for exploration. The fact that Rae acquires a friend and ally in the tax office just made my heart sing.
The presence of enslavers looms large in this book, so I do want to address how that’s handled (as the presence of enslaved people in fantasy novels tends to make me nervous). Khanani notes in an endnote that what’s being depicted here is inspired by, and draws from the experiences of, modern-day human trafficking, rather than historical instances of slavery. Because this book is the first part of a duology, Rae doesn’t come out of it with all the answers, but it’s clear that the problem of child theft depends on … drumroll please… corporate greed! While I tend to get nervous about depictions of fantasy slavery, I really appreciated that the book and its protagonist never lose sight of the horror of what’s happening. Any time another (upper-class) character casts doubt on what’s happening, someone else is there to insist on the urgency of the problem.
As a small warning, The Theft of Sunlight ends on a hell of a cliffhanger! I was forewarned about this by Legal Sister, and I was glad to know in advance what to expect. It’s a wonderful book that made me feel warm inside, a classic YA adventure that will leave you wanting more.
Note: I received a review copy of The Theft of Sunlight from the publisher, for review consideration. This has not impacted my review.