Book Review: THE BALLOON THIEF by Aneesa Marufu

Title in white on purple with a hijabi woman, a balloon and two eyes around it
Genre: Fantasy
Age Range: YA
Star Rating: 4 stars
Series: standalone


Book cover for THE BALLOON THIEF: title in white on blue with image of a hijab-wearing girl

For Khadija, the only escape from her father’s arranged betrothal is the sky. When she spots a rogue hot air balloon fighting against its ropes, she leaps at the chance for adventure.

Khadija soon finds an unlikely ally in a poor glassmaker’s apprentice, Jacob. But Jacob is a hāri, and Khadija a Ghadaean.

The hāri are oppressed and restless―their infamous terrorist group, the Hāreef, have a new fearsome leader. And the ruling Ghadaeans are brutal in their repression. Soon, a deadly revolution threatens their friendship and their world. The Hāreef use forbidden magic, summoning jinn―wicked spirits made of fire―to enact their revenge, forcing Jacob and Khadija to choose what kind of a world they want to save…

Blurb taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


THE BALLOON THIEF is a fun balloon-based adventure full of jinn and revolution told between two characters who come from very different backgrounds and take different paths in their reaction and response to oppression.

The world is South East Asian and Islamic inspired. Balloons are the major form of transport, and so impact trade and jobs and city layout. It’s one of those world building ideas that seems kinda small and just fun when you start, but then you realise the size of the impact it would have on the world, from the design and location of docks to commodity markets.

The book does explore big, difficult, topical issues, like different forms of oppression, how to have the courage to act when it seems so impossible to change, and what the driving force behind the change should be (violence? Political motion?) Both Kadija and Jacob have different answers to those questions, and spend the book finding out whether their initial answer works for them, and what those paths mean for their relationships.

This is a story primarily about friendship. The two characters are thrown together by circumstance and a tentative friendship appears to spring up, but can that survive their different paths and the fact neither can see the world from the other’s perspective? I love friendship focused books. It’s such an important relationship that often feels overlooked in YA. (THE BALLOON THIEF did have a romance, though it felt rather like a last minute addition as it comes in late, with a late addition character who has not much page time so I have no idea what they saw in each other given they didn’t know each other.)

The main criticism I’ve seen is that the Ghadaean men are all pretty awful and one dimensional – they all think they are superior and that women and Hāri are inferior. They generally just treat everyone (but one another) terribly, particularly as seen through Kadija’s eyes. And yeah, I do agree that there could be more nuance in their portrayal so they weren’t really a monolith of general bigotry.

However, I can also see that there are word count pressures on the book, and they were also not around for very long. Mostly, the “main” Ghadaean men just had to be there to set Kadija and Jacob off on their journeys, so in the small amount of time they were in the book, them being generally awful served the plot best. And the father does change by the end.

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