SPICE ROAD by Maiya Ibrahim

SPICE ROAD by Maiya Ibrahim

An epic Young Adult fantasy set in an Arabian-inspired land

Debut author Maiya Ibrahim has written Spice Road (first in the Spice Road fantasy series), her fantastic #ownvoices story inspired by her heritage and the stories passed down to her from her parents, who fled Lebanon and resettled in Australia during the Lebanese Civil War.

Maiya writes about Spice Road for Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords blog:

ON SPICE ROAD’S SETTING

My parents immigrated to Australia to escape war. At school, I was treated as an ‘other’, and I felt like I didn’t belong. Sometimes, I was even told that I didn’t belong and that I should go back to where I came from. But I didn’t come from anywhere except here, so where was I to go back to?

Adrift, I sought refuge in fantasy worlds. There, I followed the epic journeys of heroes, typically outsiders too, who defied unfair destinies and triumphed over the forces of evil and hatred through fortitude and great sacrifice. These stories made me feel less alone, but I always hoped I would stumble upon a book where the hero was like me or someone from my family, and the world was one I would recognize; I was looking for a tale that uplifted my experiences rather than portrayed them as evil, savage, or otherwise exoticized them.

I never did, but by then, I had already been delighted by the act of storytelling. Words, I learned, had power, as much as money and missiles. Words can comfort, validate, and entertain. They can also instigate change. So, while reading is still my escape from the world, writing has become my way of confronting it.

SPICE ROAD is an epic fantasy and my debut novel. It follows seventeen-year-old Imani, a gifted warrior who must fight to find her missing older brother after she discovers that he may be alive and sharing her nation’s secret spice magic beyond the enchanted sands of their borders. The story begins in the city of Qalia which, along with its magic, has been hidden from the world for a millennium. Later, the story ventures through wilderness, ancient ruins, and a kingdom ravaged by colonialism and imperialism.

It has crossover appeal, but SPICE ROAD is a young adult book, and I chose to write in the young adult space to become part of the change I want to see. Representation in media matters, and it matters especially when you are young and still forming your identity. Seeing yourself reflected in your favourite fantasy books can improve self-esteem, validate experiences, and break down barriers and stereotypes. Representation matters on every scale, in details big and small, in characters, yes, but in settings too. 

SPICE ROAD’s worldbuilding is a combination of imagination, lived experience, and inspiration drawn from the landscapes, cultures, traditions, and histories of the Middle East and North Africa. Many aspects are also inspired by the Arab and Middle Eastern diaspora of Australia. The bustling, winding souks in SPICE ROAD—where the air smells of fresh flatbread, roasted coffee, tobacco, and tangy spices, and the crowds float along in flutters of fabric—were sometimes written with the souks of Lebanon and Syria in mind. But sometimes, they were written with the markets of Western Sydney in mind.

There, too, is an element of wishful thinking involved in the setting—a dream of what could be, and a nod to what still can. When I wrote about an ancient limestone city nestled in mountains blanketed dark green by cedar trees, I was thinking of the Lebanon mountains, believed by some to be the site of the legendary Cedar Forest of Mesopotamian myth—or rather, I was thinking of what they might’ve been like before extensive deforestation reduced the trees population, as it is doing to environments across the planet.

Relatedly, Qalia is powered by the magic spice derived from the ancient misra tree. The city is prosperous and resplendent, an oasis of knowledge and ingenuity; the inspiration behind its architecture includes traditional Syrian courtyard homes and the Golden Age of Islam. But it is a city on the verge of greatness; there still fester issues of inequality, class, wealth division, and corruption. Across the sands, cities are snatched from the precipice of greatness by the hands of invaders who’ve come to plunder the lucrative Spice Road for the growth of their own empire. The book examines the devastating impacts of colonialism and imperialism, but it also interrogates the concept of isolationism. The secret magic-giving spice of Qalia, misra, is fiercely protected from outsiders, even though it could greatly improve their lives and even fend off the invaders. Misra can be viewed as an analogue for any coveted resource that makes one wealthy and secure. Tied to it is one of the core themes of SPICE ROAD: what is the extent of our responsibility to help others? Does that responsibility end where I, the individual, end, or where my country ends?

I hope that SPICE ROAD’s setting honours its inspiration as much as it challenges it. This book is my contribution to the normalisation of brown faces and spaces in fantasy media, including the spaces created and nourished by diasporic people. The novel brings to many readers a setting they may not have encountered much before, if at all; I hope it thrills and captivates and encourages further exploration, working to eliminate the notion that these settings are ‘foreign’, ‘strange’, or assigned only to ‘niche’ pieces of media. 

For readers who share my background in some way, I hope the setting invokes proud memories of your ancestral homes and makes you feel seen and appreciated by a wide audience. But the setting was also inspired by my personal experience, so I hope it equally validates the homes and traditions you may have established elsewhere, here and now—an affirmation that we are neither rootless nor adrift.

Maiya Ibrahim

Spice Road at Hachette (published January 2023)

Maiya Ibrahim’s website

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