Updated: Jan 15, 2020
Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Aisha Saeed’s Aladdin: Far from Agrabah in exchange for an honest review.
I requested Saeed’s new novel for two reasons: (1) I (and the other hosts of Unabridged--check out our episode here) absolutely adored her #ownvoices novel Amal Unbound, which was one of the 2018 Global Read Aloud selections, and (2) Aladdin is one of my favorite Disney movies ever. I can’t count the number of times my best friend and I watched that film when we were in high school.
I am, however, not a member of this book’s target audience, and I felt that vividly through the book. A middle-grade read, Aladdin: Far from Agrabah begins with an excerpt from the fictional Legendary Leaders Across the Ages. This first section details the tragic disintegration of the friendship of Sultan Waleed and his advisor Abbas, whose greed for power and gold leads him to betray his friend.
In a structure that I appreciated, these tales from Legendary Leaders continue throughout the novel, reinforcing the feeling that we’re reading a story rooted in folk tales and history and reinforcing the experiences and lessons of the book’s protagonists.
Saeed launches into the story of Aladdin and Jasmine a few days after they’ve met, alternating between their points of view. Fans of the movie know that Jasmine meets Aladdin, a “street rat,” when she has disguised herself to explore the “true” Agrabah--with his knowledge of the streets, the impoverished orphan is able to keep her safe. Now, however, Aladdin has used his first wish from the genie to transform him into Prince Ali of Ababwa, a show off who is failing to impress Princess Jasmine.
For a while, Saeed follows the movie, which is both satisfying for fans and a little frustrating for those who want more. The author does effectively create a character in Jasmine who yearns for real leadership opportunities: she is frustrated with her father’s distant and cold rule over Agrabah and wishes that she could act as her deceased mother did to bring real compassion to her kingdom.
When Aladdin and Jasmine take off on their magic carpet ride (who else is singing “A Whole New World” in their heads?), Saeed begins to build her own facet of the narrative. Jasmine requests a detour to visit Prince Ali’s home in Ababwa, and Aladdin uses a loophole to convince Genie to make it happen. It’s in Ababwa that the couple truly connects and also begins to develop a firm idea of what it means to be both a good leader and a good person.
I appreciated so much the details of the kingdom of Ababwa, and the people Aladdin and Jasmine encounter teach them a plethora of lessons throughout their visit. It’s here, however, that I most felt my distance from the young readers at whom this book is aimed: the overly explicit expression of neatly encapsulated morals to the story left me wishing for more subtlety. These lessons fit more in the sections from Legendary Leaders but feel less an organic part of the main narrative. Saeed takes on compassion, economic disparity, education, truth, the importance of actions . . . watching Aladdin and Jasmine grow and seeing Jasmine become more determined to take on a leadership role in Agrabah (go, feminism!) offers clear character arcs but left me wishing for the more complex and nuanced Amal Unbound.
I do think many young readers will enjoy Aisha Saeed’s Aladdin: Far from Agrabah in advance of the release of the new film, and the novel will certainly enrich their experience.