In August 2010, I read a beautiful grown-ups' fairy tale called Ivan and Marya by Russian-American author Anna Kashina. If I remember from back then, the author herself asked me if I'd read and review it. In April 2012, Dawei Dong from Dragonwell Publishing asked me if I'd read the first two books in Kashina's The Spirits of the Ancient Sands trilogy. Just to be clear, I received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for a review and received no other compensation.
Now you see that I'm not exaggerating when I say I'm really behind on the e-books in my review queue.
Ivan and Marya was set in Russia, but The Princess of Dhagabad is located in the Middle East, although Dhagabad and all the other place names are fictional. There is a mosque outside the princess's palace, and she and the other characters seem to be at least nominally Muslim, although they don't seem particularly troubled to interact with people who are polytheists and/or goddess-worshipers.
The princess (named Gul'Agdar, although she is normally addressed by her title, even in the narration) is a pre-adolescent child of about nine when the book opens. Her wise grandmother passes away and leaves the princess - the kingdom's heiress since her father has no living sons - a bronze bottle. As we've all suspected from the beginning, the bottle contains a djinn, or genie. The djinn's name is Hasan, and he quickly becomes the princess's friend and playmate as well as her servant.
Gul'Agdar is a bit unusual among fictional princesses; her parents give her the education and some of the privileges that would usually be reserved for a prince, such as teaching her to ride horses. She has a keen mind and loves to learn. She loves adventure and has a burning curiosity about the world.
For this reason, Hasan knows he's found a kindred spirit in the princess. Djinn are sometimes thought of as wilderness spirits, but in Kashina's telling, all djinn start out as human beings. They seek wisdom, become magicians and sorcerers, and gradually gain power until at last they leave their human bodies behind and become all-powerful. Because they are all-powerful, they must be slaves, because no being should have unlimited power AND unlimited freedom to use it.
The princess and Hasan have many adventures, including visiting an ancient temple of the Goddess of Dance hidden inside a pyramid. (It's strongly hinted that this refers to the Great Pyramids of Egypt, although Egypt is given a fictionalized name.) The princess meets Hasan's former apprentice, who threatens to end Hasan's long, magical life. The princess saves her djinn, and their relationship evolves as the princess grows and gets closer to the time when she must choose a suitor (her 17th birthday).
Because Dhagabad has no male heir, Gul'Agdar is expected to marry the prince of a neighboring kingdom so the two lands can consolidate and strengthen one another. At first she's thrilled with her chosen suitor, but after they become betrothed they begin to argue. He comes from a land where djinns are hated and suspected of all kinds of dark, evil things, but the princess can't imagine being parted from Hasan. When her wedding day finally arrives, the princess does something shocking.
The story will be continued in The Goddess of Dance.
Anna Kashina's fairy tales are a little too mature for children and younger YA audiences. There's some hint of sexuality, although nothing like explicit erotica. Gul'Agdar is a teenager, and as she grows she slowly starts to discover her feelings in an innocent sort of way. Kashina's writing is very sensual, very vivid, not only in sensory detail but also in emotional detail.
The novel is written in a combination of third- and second-person narration, both in the present tense. The second-person narration gives us Hasan's point of view. Generally, I prefer the past tense to the present tense, and I'm not normally a fan of second-person narration, either (it reminds me of those Choose Your Own Adventure books with the multiple endings). However, both of these literary devices are in expert hands, and Kashina knows what she's doing with them. After a sentence or two, I'd get too into the chapter to notice the narrative framework.
Overall, I found this book very enjoyable. I read Ivan and Marya pretty much straight through in one sitting. I didn't have that option with the book, but given the time, I would have. This is a well-told fantasy tale with enough action and romance that fantasy-lovers will find it compelling.