Book Review: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (2018)

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Review #107

The story of two girls living eight hundred years apart—a modern-day Syrian refugee seeking safety and a medieval adventurer apprenticed to a legendary mapmaker. 

Following the death of her husband to cancer, Nour’s mother wants to be closer to her home country and her family. In the summer of 2011, Nour and her family move from their apartment in New York City to Homs, Syria. But Syria is changing, and not for the better. Shells and bombs become a daily occurrence, and when their house is destroyed Nour and her family are forced to flee across the Middle East and North Africa as refugees.

Eight hundred years ago, a young girl named Rawiya disguises herself as a boy and becomes an apprentice to al-Idrisi, a world-famous cartographer who is embarking on a journey to make a map of the known world. Along the way, Rawiya ferocious mythical beasts, epic battles, and real historical figures.

The gorgeous cover art for Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars is what initially attracted me to this book. I knew little to nothing about the plot, and therefore had no expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find a novel that uses the Syrian Civil War as a backdrop for a story about family, bravery, and finding a place to belong.

A lot of attempts have been made recently to capture the refugee experience. The Map of Salt and Stars tells a deeply personal story. Nour doesn’t care why her neighborhood is suddenly being bombed. She doesn’t understand the political tensions between Libya and Algeria, or why refugee boats are shelled before they can reach shore. All Nour knows is that she has lost everything but her mother and two sisters. She knows that she wakes up every day in a different place, often cramped with groups of other people, all of whom are running away from the destruction and danger of war. By keeping laser-focused on Nour and her plight, Joukhadar ensures that the reader forms a close bond with her.

Also contained within the pages of The Map of Salt and Stars is the story of Rawiya, a young girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to become an apprentice to the esteemed cartographer al-Idrisi. Her 11th century journey with him along a route similar to the one taken by Nour as she flees from country to country. I enjoyed Rawiya’s story and the fresh perspective that it offered. Most of our ideas of the ancient world are from the Greco-Roman viewpoint, but The Map of Salt and Stars shows it through Muslim eyes instead. While Europe was buried in the Dark Ages, the scholars and scientists of the Muslim world made terrific advancements in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. They also made some of the most detailed maps of the time period, and that is where Joukhadar sets her story.

The Muslim names for the ancient cities of the Mediterranean were unfamiliar to me, and I often found it difficult to know exactly where the ancient adventurers were at any given time. There is a map included along with the table of contents, but it is a bit inconvenient to switch back and forth to the map on an eReader. This may have been one of the reasons why Rawiya’s story fell short in comparison to Nour’s. Rawiya’s struggles against mythical beasts feel far removed from reality, where Nour must fight against an enemy that is far more real and more dangerous.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Map of Salt and Stars here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!