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Book Review: Dancers of the Dawn by Zulekhá A. Afzal

Book Review: Dancers of the Dawn by Zulekhá A. Afzal

Deep in the sweltering desert an elite troupe of female dancers have been trained to harness their magic in order to become the queen’s most formidable weapons. Both feared and envied, Aasira is a rare flame-wielder whose duty is to execute enemies of the crown. All she wants is to serve her queen and escape her family legacy but as graduation approaches and war looms on the horizon, she begins to question whether being an executioner is her fate after all.

Initially set amidst the confines of the sanctuary – a training academy for the Queen’s warriors and entourage – Dancers of the Dawn is a story that begins on the cusp of a threat that’s been building for years. Whilst the whispers of war give the characters their raison d’etre, it’s actually the central character’s personal journey and internal conflict that fuels the majority of the book. Aasira might have found a place to belong amongst her fellow elite dancers but she’s still an outsider, tainted by her mother’s defection and considered a traitor by association. She’s spent her whole life trying to prove she’s nothing like her mother, that she’s deserving of a place within the Queen’s ranks, but one wrong move and everything she’s worked so hard to achieve could be snatched away.

Aasira’s story is one that’s based on the complex foundations of loyalty – not just to the crown, but to those she’s bonded to through shared circumstance, as well as those she’s bonded to by blood. Should she be loyal to a cause and a monarch simply because she’s been trained to be? Or should she follow what she knows in her heart is right, even if it pits her against the people who raised her? As the novel progresses, Aasira becomes an increasingly conflicted character. She’s determined to discover the truth about her mother, about the sanctuary and its shadowy motives, regardless of the personal cost and wider implications.

Dancer… you should call me by my true name. I’m an executioner.

Whilst Zulekhá A. Afzal’s debut is billed as a slow-burn romantasy, anyone hoping to find more than the briefest hint of romantic inclinations is likely to be disappointed. Instead, Dancers of the Dawn feels like the prequel to a romance, with Aasira and her guard Emir growing closer over the course of the story but never actually breaching the line that would take them from affectionate friends to lovers. What’s more prevalent here – and perhaps more poignant, given Aasira’s constant battle for validation – is the theme of friendship between Aasira and her fellow dancers. There’s rivalry yes, as you’d expect from young women competing for the same role, but there’s love too, and nowhere is that more evident than in the bond between Aasira and her best friend Sahi.

What Dancers of the Dawn lacks in genuine romance, however, it more than makes up for in rich atmosphere, wearing its South Asian cultural inspirations firmly on its sleeve. Everything from the clothing to the food to the music sings with a colourful vibrancy that makes you live and breathe every second of Aasira’s journey. There are little nods to other cultures and landscapes too, with the theatre built into the cliff being beautifully reminiscent of Cornwall’s Minack. It all combines to create a world that feels both unique and lived-in, with a spellbinding elemental magic system that seems to have endless possibilities.

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As the first book in Afzal’s duology, Dancers of the Dawn introduces readers to an epic high fantasy world of magic, dance, assassins and deadly secrets. It’s the kind of book that builds slowly and teases even greater conflict. And if it delivers on the romance too, the sequel could be something special indeed.


Dancers of the Dawn was published by Rock the Boat on 6 June 2024

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