Review: The Fires of Tanam Alkin by Sadie Noni

Review: The Fires of Tanam Alkin by Sadie Noni
Self-Published (2023)

My Quick Take: An enchanting tale of environmental activism in a fantasy novel for middle-grade readers. This is a great literary introduction to some serious environmental issues.

“But what is the price of doing nothing, Guardian? And who bears it? You are a part of the whole, are you not? Like the trees, the orangutans, the tigers…Do not underestimate your power. You influence more than you think.”
There are some amazing hidden gems in the world of self-publishing, and I don’t often take a chance and read them, but author Sadie Noni reached out to me about her debut fiction novel The Fires of Tanam Alkin. I decided to give it a try, as I am contemplating a feature on middle grade reading about the environment for my #ReadingAboutSustainability project. Her climate-fiction novel is targeted at 11-15 year olds (upper middle grade), featuring Aira and Dain, two teens who fight environmental degradation first in their home villages, then in the bigger cities of Tanam Alkin. They discover their heritage as Guardians of the plant and animal worlds, and learn about some of the devastating effects of deforestation and the palm oil industry.

This is a thoughtful book, with writing and ideas that are simple and straightforward but at the same time engaging. The spirit world of plants and animals is ever-present, and deities communicate (in bold text, which was effective) with Aira and Dain as they discover what it means to be a Guardian. They begin as ordinary teens who know little about the effects of mass agriculture on their local ecosystems, each with a story that begins on a local level. Aira’s village has no water flowing to it anymore and as she begins her investigation, she discovers her ability to talk with the trees and plants. She follows the water to its source and discovers all is not well. The use of industrial fertilizers is poisoning the water. Dain is hunting a tiger that is menacing his village, but he wants to spare the creature. When he becomes a Guardian, taking on the powers of a tiger, he begins to learn why tigers are encroaching onto human territory and learns about devastating deforestation.

Both Aira and Dain come to the story as innocent to detrimental practices, but we are able to learn along with them, with “beginner’s eyes” to explore greater sustainability issues. Within the narrative, there is occasionally a chapter that pauses the action a bit, focusing on a story that serves as an illustration of a point. For example, Dain follows a group of orangutans in the forest canopy and one of their babies becomes poisoned after eating a contaminated palm fruit. This is our introduction into the plight of the orangutan, at risk due to industrial agriculture and deforestation. The stories eventually merge to focus on the palm oil industry, something I don’t know much about. Even as an adult, I was invested in the story, and learned a lot.

Honestly, I was amazed by how many environmental issues author Noni packed into a short novel without it feeling preachy or overcrowded. Rather, it felt appropriate and natural. Plastic pollution in the water? Check. Pesticide use? Check. The plight of farm workers? Check. Income inequality? It’s here too.

I particularly liked that Noni didn't fall into the trap of making cartoonish villains of the plantation owners or pesticide-using farmers. Even when people are clearly doing detrimental things, she shows the ignorance that may have led to those choices, or the rationalisations for acting irresponsibly. The economic realities of workers all along the production chain are shown with understanding and compassion. The book doesn't excuse bad behaviour and ignorance, it just seeks to understand it as a jumping off point for change.

There’s a curious tone to the book. It certainly has fantasy elements with spirits and goddesses. There is magic! But at the same time, there are cars, helicopters, people wearing jeans, and the palm oil industry which is clearly taken from our society. Sadie Noni’s bio notes that she is from Indonesia, and that her name is a pseudonym and an anagram. I suspected that Tanam Alkan might also be an anagram. Enter a handy anagram descrambler, and that led to some interesting reading about Indonesia and Borneo, which I suspect is Noni’s direct inspiration for the novel. In fact, most proper names in the book are anagrams. I’ll let you discover them for yourself!

By the end of Aira and Dain’s journeys, and after some really difficult scenes of environmental catastrophe, all is not okay. The book raises the issues and leaves us with questions that still need to be answered. The message here? Despite the short term pain of changing our destructive ways, it needs to be done for continued survival of humans and all other flora and fauna on the earth. The story highlights humans’ need to take responsibility and engage in change behaviours. Instead of ending the book with the traditional “The End,” Noni ends it with “The Beginning." This lent a realistic but hopeful finale to the book, which I think is crucial for the upper middle-grade reader. Hope rather than despair galvanises us to action.

I think this would be an excellent book for anyone (I certainly enjoyed it!) but particularly for the target age group of 11-15 year olds. I suspect they will identify readily with Aira and Dain, and feel drawn in by the animal and tree stories. There is absolutely some difficult content, such as animal death and peril, and forest fires, but it’s age appropriate for readers, with that warning. Environmental crisis is not an easy thing to learn about, but this is a fantastic introduction to a difficult topic. It’s heartening to see self-published work of such integrity and quality. I hope readers will give this a try.

The Fires of Tanam Alkin is available on Amazon for e-book and hardcopy.