Novel: The Opium Prince by Jasmine Aimaq

Although there isn’t a whiff of straight-up espionage to Jasmine Aimaq’s The Opium Prince (2020), it reminded me of a Graham Greene or John le Carré novel: an immersive, literary political thriller with a unique international milieu. In mid-1970s Afghanistan, Daniel Sajadi is a man of a certain notoriety, a famous war hero’s son now leading a U.S.-backed aid agency. The agency’s mission is to eradicate Afghanistan’s poppy fields, which are fueling a growing global crisis of opiate addiction. Daniel has noble intentions, but they’re sidetracked when—during an anniversary road trip with his wife Rebecca—he strikes and kills a young nomad girl with his car. In the aftermath, he’s “aided” by Taj Maleki, a powerful opium trafficker who takes advantage of the situation to blackmail Daniel into doing his bidding. Concerned that failing to comply with Taj will lead to retribution, Daniel uses his power and influence to misdirect his agency from destroying Taj’s poppy field in favor of a different target, a process that not only shatters his ideology but sets him in conflict with colleagues, friends, and family.

The Opium Prince has a vivid, authentic period feel, so much so it feels like it could have been written during the period it’s set, rather than four decades later. Immersing the reader both in another era and another culture, Aimaq’s prose is effective and eloquent. While the initial thriller urgency soon downshifts, transitioning to an extended tale of familial and administrative conflict, it does so with an internal thrum of panic within Daniel that sustains the narrative tension. As Daniel’s relationships, circumstances, and sense of identity continue to erode, the mystery takes on new layers. The result is a gripping novel that explores the disillusioning collision of idealism and reality, with an impressive dual focus on both the historical context and the human costs of the larger political clash. An outstanding debut.

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