This book was a complicated one for me, because I really liked the overall story, but I still had some issues with it that definitely got in the way of the reading experience. The plot follows three main characters: Charlie, an American who has moved to Peshawar, Pakistan to work for a company called Mine Aware that hopes to demine villages and fields in Afghanistan; Noor, an Afghan refugee who teaches at a girl's school and hopes to get a scholarship to study abroad; and Tariq, Noor's older brother and a member of the mujadhideen, who were people fighting to free Afghanistan from Soviet/Russian control during the Cold War and its aftermath. These three are supported by characters such as Noor's father, Charlie's assistant, an American CIA operative, and a Dutch administrator hoping to climb the "aid" career ladder. There are two major plots at play: one revolves around Charlie and Noor and their relationship (or lack thereof) and the other revolves around Tariq, who promises a Saudi prince that he can marry Noor, only to find that she had fled his grasp, at which point he begins to hunt her down to fulfill his promise and advance his own interests. I thought the plots worked together wonderfully, and I really loved Noor's reluctance to be interested in Charlie, because she wants a life of her own, not to be rescued by someone. She seeks shelter with him reluctantly, and their relationship has what seems like a natural growth from conflict to affection, and Noor shelters some very real doubts about it the whole time, which I can't imagine any woman in her position wouldn't shelter. As for Charlie, he grows immensely during his time in Peshawar and Afghanistan, both professionally and personally, and I thought it was handled very well--though I did have to wonder where he was getting all the money (stacks of hundred dollar bills) that he was throwing around!
Also, I loved how this book treated the use of the burqa. While burqas are commonly seen as a sign of repression here in the US, Osborne used them fabulously in his story telling. While, for some women in his narrative, burqas are a symbol of oppression and the control of women by men, for others they represent safety. When Noor is hiding from her brother, she adopts wearing a burqa in the streets and is amazed at how invisible it makes her and how it enables her to go about her life without harassment, and consequently she doesn't revile it--and Noor is a huge believer of equality between men and women. I think allowing such a strong, feminist character to find safety in the use of a burqa (that she adopted via her own choice, not someone else's, albeit not for religious reasons) was a great choice on Osborne's part.
But, like I said, I still had some issues with the book.
First, it needs a good line editor. There are tons of places with misplaced (or, more frequently, missing) commas. Now, I am a huge fan of the comma, and am probably prone to overusing them, but there were definitely places were a comma was grammatically necessary and was missing. Also prevalent were a slew of instances in which a question mark should have been replaced with a period and vice versa, because the punctuation used did not actually match the sentence it was attached to. Also, there were several long stretches of dialogue with no tags such as "said" used, which normally wouldn't be an issue...except Osborne starts new paragraphs rather arbitrarily, so sometimes keeping track of who was talking was difficult because I wasn't sure if the speaker had actually changed or if it was just a new paragraph with the same speaker.
Second, I had an issue with the characterization of Elma. I can't say too much about this without spoilers, but while Elma is originally made out to be a career woman who will sleep her way to the top if necessary, the majority of the narrative built up her softer side. She was definitely determined to advance herself, but she was still a real thinking, feeling person. I felt like this all changed at the end of the book, and was truly appalled at how easily she lost that humanity.
And, third and last, I don't think this needed to be a series. I think some of the subplots could probably have been cut out, and the narrative streamlined a bit more in order to allow it to become one book instead of multiples. I might pick up the next one (I'm not entirely sure how many there are, honestly) but I'm not sure at this point. If I do, I hope that it's better structured and edited than this first volume. However, overall I think the story was a solid one, and I would recommend this to anyone with the patience to wade through its flaws for the gem at their center.
3 out of 5 stars.