In an over-politicized world, my wish is for this work to humanize those we call “refugees”. The Heart of Aleppo is not about the politics of the Syrian Civil War or any other conflict. Its aim is not to convince readers to support any faction or political party. Instead, this story is about the unbreakable spirit of humanity. It is about how humanity often shows its true strength during the darkest times. . .
Two days before Nabeel leaves for the last time, I find him standing at the kitchen counter with his friend, Zakariah. I don’t know his rank, but Zakariah serves directly under Nabeel in the army and only lives two miles down the road. The two of them always seem to be on leave at the same time.
Their voices are low, almost secretive, but I catch the look in Nabeel’s eye. Except back then, I didn’t recognize it.
“What are you guys talking about?”
“This “stand alone” novel is a bittersweet tale of family, friendship, war, and sacrifices. It is a highly recommended reading material for Young Adults and Adults alike. It raises several good discussion points. It is ideal reading for Book Clubs.”
He looks back at me with a smile, but it fades when he sees my expression.
“What’s wrong, Zaid?”
I glance at the ground before replying, “I don’t think I want to be a doctor anymore.”
“…I don’t think I can.”
He takes a few steps towards me before crouching down to come to my eye level, urging me to continue. “Ms. Farooq said I’m not smart enough.”
“The Heart of Aleppo starts with an explosion of action that drags you into the story immediately. That momentum slows at points, but picks up near the end, making it easy to breeze through in one sitting.”
He takes a deep breath and glances down at my feet. His eyes look like he’s weighing something, wondering if he should say it or not. When he does speak, his voice is different. It’s no longer speaking to me as his younger brother but as his friend. “You know, Zaid, Zakariah was joking about what we were talking about.”
He nods before his gaze focuses back on me. “Not even a few weeks ago, my soldiers and I were in a bit of a… well, situation.”
“As with most war stories, the story told in The Heart of Aleppo is heartbreaking. Ammar Habib does a great job with the voice of a 13-year-old enduring the destruction of Aleppo during the Syrian Civil War. One of the things that impressed me was Habib’s ability to tell the story without including the politics of the war. It is truly a story of the spirit of humanity in difficult circumstances.”
The foul stench is everywhere. It floods the buildings and road. It’s in every crevice. It’s soaked into the very brick and mortar of these streets I used to know.
We walk in a single file: Salman up front and me in the back. The sack quickly grows heavy on my shoulder, soon seeming as if it’s filled with bricks. But I trudge on. The weight of the sack is nothing compared to what my heart is feeling right now as I see the city I call home—a city that has stood for over 7,000 years—suddenly turned into wreckage.
Not even a day and a half ago, we walked from school to the bus stop. The roads were crowded with cars, trucks, and buses blaring their horns. The sidewalks were packed with pedestrians and merchants. Now, it’s a ghost town. It’s as if there was never any life here.
The city is… hollow.
A wall of smoke and smog surrounds me on all sides, preventing me from truly seeing anything clearly. Is it a blessing or a curse? I don’t see any of the destruction until I’m right on top of it. If Salman was even five more steps ahead of me, he would be lost behind the wall. We’re out on an open street; yet, it feels as if I am trapped in a prison. The dark walls of this prison follow me, not allowing me to escape their grasp.
Every step is harder than the last. My feet become weighted stones. I almost can’t feel the uneven and cracked concrete underneath me. It’s as if I’m moving in a trance. I don’t know where I am or where I’m going. I’m simply walking through the abyss and listening to the only sound: my soft footsteps.
The longer we travel and the heavier my sack becomes, the more a fear grips me. The fear that we don’t know if we’re fleeing danger or walking into a den of hungry wolves. The fear that by the time we do reach home, what happened to Jari may have already happened to everyone.
Every time I look up above, hoping to catch some sight of the heavens, all I see is smoke. It’s blocking out any light from the stars. There will be no relief tonight.
I notice a silhouette up ahead. It… it appears to be the minaret of a masjid. Hope is suddenly injected into my heart. With every step, the minaret breaks out of the smoke, and I can better perceive the masjid itself. I see its domed roof. It’s standing tall above all the destruction. If it’s still standing, it’ll be safe inside, right? Nobody will come into a masjid and harm us.
Salman hops down to join Fatima. I follow him. My feet hit the ground hard, shooting a shot of pain up my legs. The sack violently smashes against my sore upper knee, and I almost fall over before Salman catches me. That hurt more than I thought it would. As I rise back up, the foul odor immediately hits me.
The fear-striking silence surrounds me once more. It’s my only companion. The hollow sound of silence is worse than gunfire and explosions. Worse than screams. Worse than terror. Because mixed into this silence is abandonment and suffering.
“The Heart of Aleppo is a very powerful read. . . . I am giving The Heart of Aleppo a well deserved five stars. I highly recommend it for all readers. It is definitely not one to be missed.”
Paperback & ebook, 252 Pages
July 26th 2018
Winner of the 2019 Independent Press Award
#1 Bestseller in “Coming-Of-Age” Fiction
#1 Bestseller in “Asian-American” Literature
From the ashes of the Syrian Civil War comes this story of hope, love, and courage…
After standing for over 7,000 years, Aleppo’s ruin came overnight. Separated from his family during the night the rebels attacked the city, thirteen-year-old Zaid Kadir is lost in the middle of a war zone. Alongside his friends, he is forced to survive the dangers of a civil war he does not even fully understand. Zaid witnesses the destruction of the brutal Syrian Civil War as it grows more deadly by the day and rips his city apart. However, as he braves this destruction, as he desperately tries to survive this catastrophe, he discovers something. Zaid realizes that it is in the darkest hours when humanity’s spirit of hope burns brightest.
For those new to the series, what should they know?
Yes, the series is written from a Christian worldview. In fact, the trilogy was inspired by the premise question, “What if the Armor of God were real?” But, no, I did not endeavor to preach or convert or anything like that in the story. It is just a fun epic fantasy adventure!
Karina thrust the sword toward Tristan’s gut, but he sidestepped her advance. She stumbled forward a couple of steps, then growled, spun around, and lunged again.
“No.” Tristan batted her blade away with his and swatted her behind. “You’re too impatient. You have to wait for the right opening.”
Karina sucked in a breath. The more she trained with Tristan, the more she wanted to take the dull blade in her hand and run him through. Releasing a long breath, she squared her shoulders, turned around slowly, and smiled as sweetly as she could manage. “I am sorry. I have no idea what has come over me.”
A SWORD OF SOTER CHATTERER PANEL — RALENE BURKE
Interviewer: Welcome one and all to the Sword of Soter panel. We have got the noble questers for the sacred armor with us today: Karina, Queen of Aletheia and Prophetess of the Creator; Tristan, Prince of Tzedek; Rashka, Guardian of Shadowed Wood; and Sam, Knight of Aletheia.
Sam (growls): I am not a knight.
Karina: Of course, you are! You have shown more courage and strength of character in the last weeks than most of the knights of Aletheia have shown in lifetimes. It’s an honor that would have been bestowed upon you more officially if we’d been in Aletheia.
Sam: Thank you, Your Highness.
4.) What drives you as a writer?
I am an encourager and a “fix-it” type person. As a writer, I seek to combine both of those traits in a way that can inspire and encourage readers. That can be pretty difficult in fiction, but I don’t mind the challenge. I live for the days when I hear from a reader and they say that my stories helped them in some way.
Tristan stared off in the direction of the sound. “That definitely lends to the mystery of what lupens are doing this far south.”
Another howl echoed through the chasm and across the plains. Karina took a step toward Tristan. An answering bay came from the east, from the distant woods. More than one? Her heartbeat skittered.
A chorus of howls brought frightened whinnies from the horses. Dom stomped his feet. “We need to go, Prophetess.
Top 10 Things to Bring on a Quest
We’re going on a trip…a journey…a QUEST.
First, we have to pack. Now, this ain’t a trip to the Bahamas—we can’t bring 3 suitcases on a plane to unload onto a cart and then into a car. If we’re lucky, we’ll have a horse to strap a couple extra small bags to. . .
“I enjoyed getting to know Karina and the characters that surround her on her quest, as well as the challenges they face and overcome. An uplifting spiritual thread, too, can be found throughout the two stories. All in all, these books left me ready for the next one.”
“And what has you two stooping to eat humans again?” The woman paused before the two ogres and raised her head to meet their glares with one of her own.
Bogey jerked his thumb in the other ogre’s direction. “Madge’s stomach.”
“What have I told you two about engaging with innocent folk?” The mysterious woman crossed her arms.
From here, Sam could tell her eyes were a beautiful emerald green, the same color as her dress. No wonder she hid so well on her approach. Whoever she was, at least she seemed to be on his side. Or at least on the side of not letting the ogres eat him.
What did you learn or discover about yourself (or your characters) while writing Sword of Soter?
R: Well, I discovered I could write 10k words in a single day on multiple Saturdays. Ha! Life was kind of hectic, and I kept having to catch up on my word count goals.
On a more serious note, writing Rashka’s story in this book, helped me work through some of my own issues of “trying to do it all on my own.”
“Armor of Aletheia and Sword of Soter present an action-filled allegory of faith set against the backdrop of good vs. evil . . . the author has clearly drawn some intricate world-building and left some intriguing possibilities for the third and final book in the trilogy. A great choice for young adults, to entertain as well as strengthen their faith.”
She opened her eyes to a shimmering green flame, reminiscent of the bonfire from their night in Greenhorn. She shrunk against Tristan’s side. He nudged her farther behind him and stood, pulling his sword.
Masculine laughter rose from amid the unusual flames. Rashka, her face a stoic mask, rounded the fire with her bow poised as she made her way toward Karina.
“What is happening?” Karina asked.
“I do not know, Prophetess.” Rashka fixed her gaze at the fire. “Stay back.”
“After reading Armor of Aletheia earlier this fall, I was eagerly anticipating Sword of Soter. Ralene Burke did not disappoint. Burke continues the epic adventure begin in book one. Some of the characters continue in Sword of Soter and new ones are introduced. . . . If you enjoy epic fantasy like Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia, I highly recommend Sword of Soter.”
Who did you have in mind as you wrote the book?
The Sacred Armor trilogy was written for those who are still searching for their calling. Or those who have found their calling but are unsure they are worthy of it or how to embrace it. Each character is the story is called to something they are uncomfortable with for different reasons, much like we are.
Holding his monocle, the man offered a deep bow, to which Karina nodded. There was something familiar about him. “Greetings, Queen Karina. How nice to see you again. You are welcome indeed. I am sure you have forgotten by now, but I am Bormain, steward of the roy—by the Creator, Tristan Lemur, is that you?”
Karina fought to maintain her composure as she turned to Tristan, who stiffened before holding out his hand in greeting. “Bormain, my good man, it is good to see you again.”
Bormain looked a bit flustered. “I did not realize we had two royal guests.” He quirked a brow. “Much less that you were traveling together.”
Building a Storybook World
One of the best aspects of being a fantasy writer is the freedom to build our own story worlds. Granted, to an extent, we are still bound by the laws of science. But there is still massive freedom in creating a new world, including geography, creatures, and cultures. . .
Q: Which genre is your favorite? If you could only write or recommend readers read one, what would your ‘go-to’ genre be?
A: FANTASY! I love that fantasy allows us to expand our imagination, to create new worlds, new peoples, new creatures. We can explore all the stuff we face in real life, but in a way that is removed and still provides a sense of escape.
“If I enjoyed the first, I loved reading Sword of Soter! From the start, I was quickly pulled back into to this series, and having already met some of the main characters, this one holds more character growth and I loved all the awkward tension as Tristan and Karina learned to work together both with each other, and with others. I also felt this one is a smoother read, and the pacing was much better.”
#SHINEBeyond in Soter
Readers often ask me where I came up with the #SHINEBeyond tagline and what exactly it means. And I’m all too happy to take the time to answer as this philosophy is something dear to my heart. Essentially, #SHINEBeyond was a culmination of all my work in writing, editing, and ministry—a cohesive theme seen in everything I tried to do. . .
As the steward opened the door, Karina cleared her throat. “Please remind the king that my business is urgent. I need to take my leave as soon as possible.”
“I will, Your Majesty. Enjoy your stay at the palace.” And then he was gone.
Karina turned back to the room. Tristan stood in the corner not bothering to hide his smirk. Rashka paced by the windows, looking out over the courtyard below and the sea beyond. Lady Moriah and the two handmaidens stood off to the side, watching them expectantly. What now?
Sabreen clasped her hands together and held them near her heart. “And you found her.” The words sounded sarcastic, yet there was a hint of some other emotion—something Sam could not determine.
He chuckled. “Yeah, I found her with a bounty hunter.”
She gasped. “How did you all get away?”
“We didn’t. Turns out the bounty hunter was helping her. At least he was by then. After he kidnapped her. After he took her to Faramos.”
“. . . Burke’s passion for Christ shines through the pages of Sword of Soter through her characters, especially the main character Karina. Sword of Soter is a pleasant story and great for reading on rainy days.”
“Ralene Burke knows how to weave a story! . . . Sword of Soter was an enjoyable read that kept me turning the page to see what will happen next.”
NEW KINGDOM. NEW FRIENDS.
NOT EVERYONE CAN BE TRUSTED …
Karina, Tristian, Rashka, and Sam venture forth into the wilderness of Soter on the next leg of their quest to retrieve the Armor of the Creator. With the ancient evil already affecting the kingdom, nothing in Soter is what it seems—from what skulks beneath the canopies of the woods to what lies within the sleek white and gold of the capitol city to the people Karina and Tristan have known since they were children.
Danger lurks around every corner. Discerning who to trust is paramount to staying alive and discovering the location of the Temple of Soter. Yet, to Karina’s horror, Faramos’s reach finds them time and again. The longer they are forced to dawdle, the more people are affected by the growing panic in Soter, and the closer Faramos is to taking over the Three Kingdoms. Can Karina retrieve the information they need while Tristan keeps his brother at bay? Or will the entire quest disintegrate before they even arrive at the temple?