This book checked a lot of boxes for me: I love reading nonfiction based in other countries; I love animals, especially exotics; and I love learning about events in our recent history that I admittedly know too little about. So when I won an ARC of this book to review (thanks Bookish First!), I was thrilled on many levels. Father of Lions did not disappoint.
The ongoing conflict in the Middle East has been the defining event on the world stage in my lifetime. Despite that, I know precious little about it. Sure, I hear the names of the towns and cities living through war, I know the parties involved. But the whole picture is not one that I have. And I would bet that I'm far from alone in not having a clear picture of how the people living through this conflict are surviving, what their lives are like, what the impacts of the war are on their daily lives. In fact, I think in the US, there is a definite lack of humanity in this topic. It is so far removed from our day to day existence, and most of us have never lived through a war to have a point of reference. So Father of Lions is an important book, in my opinion, because it puts a face to the conflict. We learn just how cities under siege look and how they feel and how people like Abu Laith, Lumia, and Hakam are impacted by the violence. I think every American needs to have a context for what the impacts of these conflicts are, as the United States always seems to have some role in them, and they form much of the basis of conflict within our own political parties.
If I have one critique of Father of Lions, it would be that I think the premise is a bit misleading. While a significant portion of the book is devoted to the animals of the Mosul Zoo, in my opinion Abu Laith's contribution might be a bit overblown. I don't really think it was "one man's quest," especially when that man spent the vast majority of the war hiding in his home. Marwan was the one braving the streets to make the journey to care for the animals as long as he possibly could. The children were the ones sacrificing their meals and begging from neighbors to gather food for the animals. And if it wasn't for the intervention of an unnamed person posting on Facebook, and Hakam then becoming involved and further involving Four Paws to provide aid, the animals that did survive would not have. While Abu Laith might have loved those animals as if they were his own, I didn't walk away from this book feeling that he had made some supreme sacrifice to save them. In fact, when Dr. Amir noted that there wasn't even fresh water available to the animals (after the liberation) I felt frustrated with Abu Laith. When Warda was mutilated by Mother through the cage, I wanted to shake him! Why would anyone place a starving lion and a baby bear in such proximity that this incident could have occurred!
All in all, this book was fantastic. It was well written and as engaging as any contemporary fiction. It was informative and helped me to experience the Middle Eastern conflict from the perspective of those who lived it. And while I nitpick Abu Laith's level of contribution to the survival of the Mosul Zoo animals, it is clear that he adored those animals as if they were his own children and I do recognize the limitations he had placed on him due to his outspoken nature. This book is a keeper and will be one I return to, for sure.