In a fantasy world that draws on South Asian heritage, customs, folklore and dress, The Balloon Thief by Aneesa Marufu offers a window into the dichotomy of privilege and oppressed, how those labels are more complicated than we perceive and the motivations to both keep the status quo and to turn to violent rebellion being equally harmful.
I am lucky enough to have Aneesa’s own thoughts on the way fantasy can be a tool to interpret our own world, click here to jump straight there.
Content Warning: child abuse, on page death, terrorist attacks, fire, burning alive, corpses, child death, sexual harassment, torture (of a magical creature), discussion of dark magic, necromancy and demons, on page kisses, transphobia (but never justified)
Khadija has spent her life restricted. To her bedroom, and in ambitions as a Ghadaean girl. Watching the aerialists that dot the skies above her homeland coupled with the folk tales her brother once read to her she dreams of hot air balloons. Her Abba did not like this story and constantly tries to arrange her marriage to boys dwindling in social value as she rejects each suitor as she does not wish to marry.
When an errant balloon offers her a physical escape from a terrible proposal she leaps into the skies, she first lands in a rundown town where she meets Jacob.
Jacob is apprentice to a glass blower, but only because he couldn’t steal his masters designs like the previous apprentice but is abused constantly at the whim of his masters short temper. He is ‘hāri’ – unwanted, unbelonging- after his people’s ancestors failed to seize the land 90 years ago they are still abused, punished today.
When his best friend invites him to meet the terrorist rebel group the Hāreef, who battle using dark jinn magic, the meeting turns into a massacre and escapes with Khadija into the skies with an instruction to meet the Hāreef in the capital of the North.
As they float away and discover the lies they have lived by, the two still struggle with the experiences of their heritage and become embroiled in a deathly war for identity, pride, and perhaps all humanity.
“What if I told you there was a chance we can change all of this? What would you do it, even if it meant risking everything?“William to Jacob
Breathless action adventure, at places feels like an utterly modern television adaptation with flawed and yet resonant characters experiencing dark and complicated situations then has these glorious sweeping moments of great swashbuckling golden cinematic moments presenting Khadija, Anam, Darius and Jacob as Titans of the silver screen.
Both leave you hungry for more, the nostalgic feast giving moments of pause and relief from the darkest moments whilst the ways these same characters navigate the darkness and problematic world they inhabit seizes you by the heart and draws you in by their emotional relatability and their commonalities despite the complex differences & heritage their ethnicities present.
The role of fantasy to explore our own world
Aneesa Marufu draws on a tradition and technique, employed richly by my own favourite Terry Pratchett, to sharpen a lens on our own world within the ‘safe space’ of fantasy that we can step outside our own cultural and personal experience and view another perspective without ‘blame’ as Pratchett explored racism, misogyny and transphobia through the interaction of different fantastical races in his Discworld.
Aneesa touches on all these subjects however, instead of using humans and jinn to represent racism in our world, Marufu instead chooses the provocative but powerful decision to keep it fully human but race-flip the oppressor and oppressed much like Malorie Blackman did in the Noughts + Crosses saga. We still have that fantasy ‘safe distance’ but now it directly challenges our real world experience, and humanises further as we uncomfortably realise both sides are flawed in the way they perceive the other, that any state of oppressor and oppressed is wrong, and able to recognise our maybe unknown prejudices and more so appreciate motivation and value the experience of ‘others’.
The ‘simple’ dichotomy is no longer simple, but raw, complicated and flawed in the lie that there is no common ground, yet equally underlines the importance of identity and it being recognised with respect.
I guess we’re both as bad as each other then.Jacob reflects how they both stole the balloon at some point
I’m incredibly lucky that Aneesa wrote for me her thoughts on employing the tools of fantasy to give life to her story.
What has always drawn me to fantasy as a genre is how there are fewer limitations to what you can create and explore, it allows you to be fully within that creative space, but fantasy isn’t just about creating magical worlds with mythical creatures. When you remove the real-world element you are no longer restricted by historical and cultural accuracy, meaning that as an author you can explore themes and take them to extremes, discover their outcomes in this fantasy world and how they affect the characters, the type of people they are forced to become, and the decisions they have to make.
With The Balloon Thief, one of the themes I really wanted to explore within this world was racism and racial segregation. Being something that is increasingly relevant in today’s world, and something that has affected myself being British Pakistani and a Muslim, particularly growing up as a teenager, racism is something that continues to affect many teenagers today and yet there are not nearly enough books discussing it.
I wanted to depict racism from both angles in The Balloon Thief and show how much of a person’s prejudice is influenced by external factors such as society, media, and a person’s upbringing, and how it can be possible to change these preconceptions through integration and education.
In the book, main characters Khadija and Jacob are forced to put their differences aside to tackle a greater threat, and in doing so learn the importance of friendship and forgiveness, with the key message of the book being that differences should be celebrated instead of feared, and that fear tends to stem from a lack of understanding.
Exploring everyday themes within the fantasy genre adds that sense of realism to a story that can make it much more relatable, even if readers cannot relate to a story about two friends saving the world in a hot air balloon, they can relate to the feelings of prejudice and unbelonging that the two characters are facing. I’ve always found that the books that tend to stay with us long after we’ve read them are the ones we feel resonate and represent us, and fantasy is no exception.
Fantasy uncovers an uncomfortable truth
Aneesa uses the fantasy setting to explore both the injustice and futility of prejudice causing loss, anger and bitterness on each side; Khadija’s Ammi and brother, Jacob’s parents and best friend, killed by hatred shows the duality of their predicament and that loss is a universal experience- whether the Ghadaean soldiers or Hāreef are true terrorists is down to perception, community and experience much like the perception of a police officer in our world may be a rescuer or oppressor due to these things.
‘Drawing attention to themselves, all in a bid to rinse the blood off their hands, as if society would finally accept them if they did. She pitied them. Terrorists or not, they were still hāri, and that in itself was too big a crime.’Khadija observes the hāri protesting and denouncing the actions of the Hāreef.
You can see the carthasis and hope as Aneesa channels the hurt and frustration of her community and childhood growing up South Asian British in the post 9-11 era of Islamaphobia and prejudice.
Through the medium of fantasy and race-bending the context Aneesa explores and presents the real world feelings of futility, and the downside of perpetuating ‘the good immigrant’ in explaining not all Muslim/Asian heritage are like those sensationalised and whipped up to provoke righteous hate by the media; the degradation and exhaustion of the soul felt at the abuse and hated that is hurled merely at the skin and heritage, two things completely uncontrollable but never indicative of a person’s heart and character; and the long term historical record of pain, subjugation and injustice of people ‘different’ to the Victor.
By presenting these things we uncomfortably come to recognise an empathy in the emotions and reasons that lead desperate young people labelled by skin and heritage, to the seductive lure and promise of instant revenge and empowerment when one feels so powerless.
In a world where such choices by disenfranchised, and impulsive and impassioned by design teenagers are vilified, it’s a growth moment, but importantly Aneesa makes clear that empathy with experience and motivations never truly justifies choosing and carrying out the act of terrorism.
‘You must be happy enough with how things are if you’re not willing to do anything about it’Jacob vilifies Khadija’s inaction against discrimination
But equally touching on the conflicted feelings and the frustrations about empathetic actions by a minority of the privileged group amount to little more than virtue signalling in the short term impact as we see Jacob and Khadija’s horror and confusion at learning about the Wazeem, the Ghadaean sympathisers to the hāri plight who want equality.
Khadija initially seeing it as a nice gesture and Jacob seeing it as virtue signalling without any real impact because even if any change did happen, how much would the Ghadaeans cede to Hāri in a system that suits them so well, and any effort takes so much time, years of effort, meetings and persuasion to just get to the doors of those who might be able to act.
But the novel underpins the necessity of the privileged to act, that whilst instant change may not be achievable, without those with privilege to change their minds and speak up the ripples of change will never spread .
This is underlined most clearly in whilst the ‘escape’ of the hot air balloon breaks down the ingrained expectations of Ghadaean and hāri, allowing each to see the other as a person not a label, the sad truth is the ‘escape’ cannot last forever.
‘The whole idea scared him, but he couldn’t float around in the sky with a Ghadaean girl for ever, pretending the world and its problems did not exist. At some point, he’d have to land.’
On the other hand Vera and her Hàreef are a seductive lure, they offer instant gratifying vengeance and action for those riddled with anger, hatred and grief at the way they have been treated or the malicious and gratuitous abuse and slaughter of their people. And there are plenty of hāri who are prepared to shed Ghadaean blood in their anger.
But not realising of the darker purpose and consequences behind it, both infernal and personal, we uncover how Vera is prepared to sacrifice innocent hāri to the pyre of collective suffering and channel that resulting anger provoking more to join the ranks thinking there is no peaceful alternative when they have been manipulated.
The Feminine Experience in The Balloon Thief
But there is more to this world than the dichotomy of Ghadaean and hāri. The experience of the feminine across the cultures explores the female experience in our world in different ways.
‘You can’t spend the rest of your life in your bedroom reading storybooks’
Khadija is a important character in Western YA literature, a hijabi/mohajaba heroine who both respects her heritage but pushes against the unjust is sadly a published minority, especially within the realm of fantasy. Khadija provides a sharp lens to explore the ways misogyny is veiled as ‘protection’ and ‘respectfulness’. Ghadaean females like Khadija are blocked from any form of education, power even opinion and how they are trapped into early arranged marriages to control them and curtail their ambitions.
Khadija dreams of a world outside her home, yet before her adventure could only hope for a false sense of independence through a neglectful absent husband. She is hurt when her ambitions are dismissed as being limited to a husband and babies even though she is guilty of similar judgements against others.
As she surveys new physical horizons her eyes, mind and heart are forced open to the complexities of the social problems in her homeland that there is injustice and that there are angels and demons on both sides of the ethnic divide as she negotiates the hard truth that her society is broken if it only serves to raise up one part of its people and crush beneath the boot another. And whether that divide applies within gender too.
We want the same thing. Change. To undo all the wrongs that have been done… So many have suffered at their hands… These tragedies.They end nowVera awakens hope in Jacob.
The impact of a character like Vera is somewhat more subtle in its significance. The fact that a hāri woman, and an older one at that is the leader of a terrorist group speaks of the total lack of power and value that she held in Ghadaean culture, and how having nothing left to lose makes her the most dangerous enemy.
In this way the fantastical context of Vera’s life helps us negotiate the anger of non-white women in our world, the experience of misogyny doubled down with discrimination as a person and woman of colour and the pain of mothers who lose their sons by racism & hatred.
Through Vera who swings from terrifying in her actions to relatable in her pain we comprehend but not condone the path by which people become burned by their own anger and inability to access justice or change and turn to hate and terrorism, and equally reflect on the naivety and futility of grinding down another group in punishment, and the danger of the ‘hard way’ using threat and weaponising abuse and murder believing that will keep them ‘in place’.
‘I am not a costume. I can no more take this off than you could tear your own skin off.’Anam explains to Jacob her reality.
And then there is Anam, who represents a female and identity battle all of her own. The right to be considered and accepted as a woman in a society with strict gender rules and expectations, where even the women she leads have their disapproval and prejudices.
Anam’s story and place in the world of the novel is vitally important because it draws a line in the sand, for showing Jacob that whilst valid pain and the situation abhorrent, hāri are not the only ones in pain and more so that retaliation will only burn the whole world down, it is choosing empathy without excusing or accepting intolerance that can truly win. Anam has a deeper purpose though of making a clear statement on femininity and misogyny applying to all those who are female, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, in our world, irrespective of culture as much as the book.
In the dark Darian’s skin was just skin. It was not something to be worn or something to hide behind. . It was not a guarantee of oppression or a promise of privilege. It was human skin. That’s all.Khadija discovers the fundamental truth.
In The Balloon Thief, Aneesa reminds us that true and lasting change does not come instantly via violence, wishes or official edicts but instead creeps in and spreads like wildflowers through changes of hearts and minds.
The Balloon Thief by Aneesa Marufu is published by Chicken House.