As a daughter of the Salt King, Emel ought to be among the most powerful women in the desert. Instead, she and her sisters have less freedom than even her father’s slaves … for the Salt King uses his own daughters to seduce visiting noblemen into becoming powerful allies by marriage.
Escape from her father’s court seems impossible, and Emel dreams of a life where she can choose her fate. When members of a secret rebellion attack, Emel stumbles upon an alluring escape route: her father’s best-kept secret—a wish-granting jinni, Saalim.
But in the land of the Salt King, wishes are never what they seem. Saalim’s magic is volatile. Emel could lose everything with a wish for her freedom as the rebellion intensifies around her. She soon finds herself playing a dangerous game that pits dreams against responsibility and love against the promise of freedom. As she finds herself drawn to the jinni for more than his magic, captivated by both him and the world he shows her outside her desert village, she has to decide if freedom is worth the loss of her family, her home and Saalim, the only man she’s ever loved.
Daughter of the Salt King is a desert fantasy, about a girl who falls in love with a jinni with the power to grant wishes. I really enjoyed this book at the beginning, but ultimately found myself wishing for a book that actually lived up to its feminist promise.
To start with, I think Thornton is a solid writer with a knack for description: this book evokes a sense of the great, endless desert stretching far out onto the horizon, as well as the suffocating nature of the palace where the main character, Emel, resides. I really love settings of this type, so if you’re looking for something other than the typical medieval fantasy, I would typically recommend this book.
However; the actual world-building that sits under the prose felt lazy, due to a heavy reliance on tropes. This is a fantasy novel set in a desert, so of course the king is a cruel despot with a harem of wives, the daughters are routinely forced to provide sexual pleasure to sleazy old men, and the only gay couple in the books could be put to death if they’re caught. I don’t mind stories that explore sexism and homophobia through the lens of a made-up world, but this book didn’t really shed any light on these issues. Frankly, I’m tired of reading books where women’s (lack of) rights to bodily autonomy are an accepted part of the setting, without no or limited critique.
My issues in this regard extend to Emel’s character. When we first meet Emel, she is trapped in the palace with twenty-six other sisters, and her only hope of escape is to be married off to one of the rich and powerful men from the neighbouring lands who come to court them. Emel is desperate to escape the confines of the palace and see more of the outside world, but she also defines her entire self-worth in relation to men – her desire to please her father, and her terror at potentially being thrown on the scrap-heap and deemed worthless if she doesn’t secure a husband soon. The djinni, Saalim, offers her a chance at a better life, but soon all Emel’s wishes are bound up with him – another man, even if this one isn’t quite human. By the end of the book, Emel’s desire to leave the palace simply to adventure becomes almost a secondary goal. There simply isn’t a lot of character growth; Emel’s sister Sabra, and her friend Firoz have much more interesting character arcs that we barely get to see.
For what it’s worth, I did enjoy the romance – Thornton captures the sheer overwhelmingness of falling in love well, and Saalim’s backstory is slowly unfurled throughout the book, allowing him to maintain an air of tantalising mystery. Saalim’s story is also intrinsically linked to the desert setting, which helped bring the world to life. I just wish more time had been dedicated to developing Emel’s character and poking holes in the sexist world she lived in.
Note: I received an ARC from CamCat Books. Daughter of the Salt King was released on 2 February 2021.