A spoiled princess who fiercely loves her family and people is challenged by circumstances to become more while also being romantically intrigued by someone who’s forbidden—an intriguing ambassador. Pitched as a Pakistani-inspired retelling of The Lady or the Tiger, this fantasy brings forward a stunning culture, fascinating court politics, and an angst-filled love story. Published in July 2021, The Lady or the Lion takes readers through a lush setting, dramatic romance, iconic dialogues, and classic tropes to build on the duality of everything, complex decisions, and incandescent emotions.
After winning many readers’ hearts, this romantic fantasy will be bringing a sequel, The Man or the Monster, on shelves in July 2022. Expected to bring a similar wave of court surprises, romantic angst, and desi representation that entails Pakistani culture as well as stunning Urdu phrases, it’s no surprise readers are excited for this sequel. Needless to say, it’s a pleasure to feature Aamna Qureshi —the author of The Marghazar Trials— on this blog today! To view more such posts by Muslim authors, make sure to check out this collaboration, Muslim Musings, spanning over Ramadan 2022. This blog post may contain affiliate links. To know more about them, please read my disclaimer.
Q/A with Aamna Qureshi on her debut fantasy, infusion of Pakistani culture, building a lush world, and classic tropes like forbidden romance.
Starting with the introductions, would you like to help our readers know more about your debut novel, The Lady or the Lion, yourself, and the weather where you are?
Hi everyone! My name is Aamna Qureshi and I’m the author of The Lady or the Lion, a young adult historical fantasy set in a Pakistan-inspired world in which a princess has three months to prove her grandfather’s innocence or her kingdom will have war. The book actually takes place in spring, and I have some lovely spring weather by me today – all sunshine, blue skies, and gorgeous greenery returning to the grass and trees. I’ve got my window open and am listening to the birds sing, and there’s a little bunny running around my backyard. I honestly can’t complain.
As a retelling inspired by the short story, The Lady or the Tiger, how did you make it yours: through reflections of your cultural heritage, through the mix of romance & drama, or through the political storyline?
The original short story is exactly that – short – so I had a lot of liberty to make this story my own. The way that I mainly did this was through the cultural details, drawing from my Pakistani heritage, and through the romance, a feature in media I’ve always adored. It was such an enjoyable experience expanding the original short story into a full-length book centering around those two aspects.
Speaking of romance, this lush fantasy features a forbidden relationship—between a spoiled princess and an enemy ambassador—as a core element. Can you elaborate on the feelings that motivated Durkhani and Asfandyar to move towards each other?
I love a good forbidden romance because despite all the reasons these characters should stay away from each other, they just can’t help but be drawn closer and closer. There’s an inevitability to it, and succumbing to a force greater than yourself.
Durkhanai is especially pulled toward Asfandyar because she finds him refreshingly honest with her; he is not afraid to point out areas in which she is lacking or wrong. She is glad to have someone who pushes her to be better, who challenges her and does not let her be complacent. Asfandyar is drawn to Durkhanai because he sees how genuine she is; he appreciates how much she loves her people and how fiercely loyal she is to those she loves. He is in awe of her wit and her strength, and more than that, he is very used to being alone, but here is someone who doesn’t let him be alone.
The Lady or the Lion by Aamna Qureshi
Once there was a princess forced to choose a fate for her lover – to a future in the arms of a beautiful lady, or to death in the mouth of a lion? But what came first was the fate she would choose for herself.
As crown princess of Marghazar, Durkhanai Miangul will do anything to protect her people and her land. When her grandfather, the Badshah, is blamed for a deadly assault on the summit of neighboring leaders, the tribes call for his head. To assuage cries for war, the Badshah opens Marghazar’s gates to foreigners for the first time in centuries, in a sign of good faith. Enter Ambassador Asfandyar Afridi, a wry foreigner who admits outright that he is a spy. Stubborn, proud, and suspicious of foreigners, Durkhanai does not appreciate that he won’t bow to her every whim and instead talks circles around her.
And yet, she has to make him her ally to expose those truly responsible for the attack as more ambassadors from neighboring tribal districts arrive at court, each one of them with their own agenda and reasons to hide the truth.When a mysterious illness spreads through the village and the imperialists push hard on her borders, Durkhanai must sort through the ever shifting loyalties at court and her growing feelings for Asfandyar. Will she be able to leave the antics of a spoiled princess behind and become what her people need – a queen?
There couldn’t have been a better backdrop than a Pakistan-inspired lush world for court intrigues and true love to impress. What were some of your favourite cultural details, food descriptions, and Urdu phrases to include when creating this world?
I loved describing Durkhanai’s outfits! I love Pakistani fashion; it’s so extravagant and perfectly fitting for a princess. For food, I loved describing the chai spreads because I have so many fond memories of sitting with my family members, sipping chai and eating little snacks. An Urdu phrase I loved including was “aaj jaane ki zidd na karo,” which is actually a song, and which loosely translates to “today, don’t insist on leaving,” but the translation doesn’t do justice to the love and tragedy of the statement.
The sequel, The Man or the Monster, is soon to be published on July 26, 2022! Readers obviously expect an emotional rollercoaster similar to the first book but would you like to share a snippet or sentence to tease us more?
I’m hoping it’s an emotional rollercoaster!! Here’s a little tease, from a dream Durkhanai has:
Whether it’s the all Muslim cast in a romantic fantasy like The Lady or the Lion or the hijabi teen in a YA contemporary like When a Brown Girl Flees (2023), the presence of religion is evident in your works. How important is it for you to create stories that feature Muslim characters across genres?
It’s immensely important for me to create authentic stories with Muslim characters because religion is such a large part of who I am, so naturally, that translates into my writing, as well. For The Lady or the Lion, I wanted to include Islamic details like mention of prayer or making dua because those details would be accurate to the region in that time period, and because I wanted my book to have that sort of subtle representation, which I had never really seen before.
In When a Brown Girl Flees (2023), so much of the main character, Zahra’s, journey revolves around religious guilt and intergenerational trauma and how she heals those wounds by connecting with her Muslim community and by deeply exploring her personal connection with faith. There are so many Muslim stories out there waiting to be told – some subtle, some direct – and I am so thankful to be given the opportunity to be a small part of those narratives.
With your debut published and with two more books on the way, what have you learned ever since that first step you took towards writing stories or getting them on shelves?
I’ve learned that the most important thing in this business, at whatever stage you are at, is to do your best and focus on what you can control. I’m so proud of the books I’ve written, and I sincerely hope that people enjoy them, and that they are sources of good in this world, but I can’t control the reception, or how people will read them, so I try not to focus on any of that. I just do what I can.
This was a great chat! But before letting you go, would you like to share what you’ve been working on nowadays; any stories in the making? Maybe something you enjoyed reading recently?
Thank you so much for having me! I had a lovely time. Currently, I am working on what seems like the hundredth round of revisions on my work-in-progress, To Tame A Fox, which is a young adult urban fantasy novel about a private school for gifted witches. I’m hoping I can get it ready for submission soon, so hopefully I have good news to share in the near future!
She is a Pakistani, Muslim American who adores words. She grew up in a very loud household, surrounded by English (for school), Urdu (for conversation), and Punjabi (for emotion). Through her writing, she wishes to inspire a love for the beautiful country and rich culture that informed much of her identity. When she’s not writing, she loves to travel to new places where she can explore different cultures or to Pakistan where she can revitalize her roots. She also loves baking complicated desserts, drinking fancy teas and coffees, watching sappy rom-coms, and going for walks about the estate (her backyard). She currently lives in New York. Look for her on IG @aamna_qureshi and Twitter @aamnaqureshi_ and at her website aamnaqureshi.com!
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Everything stated in this post is independent of any compensation, and the author’s answers and thoughts are solely their opinion; the formatting was done by the blogger but no changes were made in text.