This debut novel explores the themes of prejudice and confinement, woven into a fantasy world full of action and drama. Khadija, a high caste Ghadaean, is kept within the confines of her bedroom by her father until he finds a suitable match for her. She spends her time drawing the many hot-air balloons she can see from her window and dreaming of escaping into the skies in one of them. Her chance arrives when, appalled at her father’s latest attempt to find her a husband, she sees a balloon which has been carelessly tethered and makes her escape.
When she lands it is in a village populated by Hari, those born to serve, oppressed by the Ghadaeans. Despite their social differences she finds help in relaunching the balloon from Joseph, a maltreated glass-blower’s apprentice and the two are liberated by their release from the earth, only to become involved in the insurrection which the Hari have planned in order to overthrow the Ghadaeans.
Marufu creates a glittering fantasy world in which the two sides battle for supremacy, drawing in jinn, angels and a rich box of supernatural tricks to assist their endeavours. The descriptions of both characters and places are detailed and credible, as are the fracturing of loyalties, the betrayals and counter-betrayals. The action is frantic and success in battle shifts from one set of protagonists to another, keeping tension and drama at fever pitch. Khadija discovers her strengths and Joseph loses his timidity and subservience. They fight not for personal gain but for the triumph of good against evil.
During the course of the conflict Khadija and Darian, a Hari, fall in love and here, briefly, Marufu’s sure grasp of narrative falters as romantic cliché occasionally grates against the power of the action and the uniqueness of their alliance. That aside, fluent readers who are lovers of fantasy will enjoy The Balloon Thief, for its spectacle and for its thought-provoking exploration of racism, social hierarchy and the place of women in society.