PROS: Great dynamic between the two main characters; strong evocation of time, place, style and mood.
CONS: A somewhat muddled ending; some problems with plotting with respect to the female lead.
VERDICT: Page-turning Sword & Sorcery adventure in the 8th Century Middle East.
Imagine 8th Century Baghdad. Feel the winds blowing into the market, the souk. Storytellers plying their wares. Merchants selling fruits from near and far. Desert stars at night twinkling above. Sword, sorcery action and adventure not only around every corner, but beyond, to the south, where the two rivers meet the Persian Gulf, and beyond, to the desert where a lost city waits buried.
Welcome to The Desert of Souls…
Desert of Souls is the debut novel from Howard Andrew Jones. Howard Andrew Jones knows sword and sorcery. An acknowledged expert on the work of Harold Lamb (whom I invoked in my review of K.V. Johansen’s The Blackdog), Jones is also the managing editor of Black Gate, a magazine devoted to adventure fiction, swashbuckling fun with brisk pacing and high imaginative action.
So, does Jones practice what he preaches in his debut novel, The Desert of Souls? You bet!
The scene is late 8th Century Baghdad, in the rule of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Although the Caliph is not named directly, the Caliph can be identified and the action is cleverly dated by references to the Empress Irene, who this enthusiast of all things Roman can tell you ruled the Byzantines as Empress Regnant in the late 8th century). This is a somewhat alternate Earth, though, not only because of the addition of magic, but because the House of Wisdom is mentioned anachronistically as well, and some other clues suggest this is an Arabian Nights Earth rather than a historical one. Jaffar’s prized parrot has died and has put the trusted judge and advisor to the Caliph in a foul and depressive mood. Asim, captain of the qadi’s guards, has a plan, a diversion: A trip, incognito, for the Caliph’s trusted judge Jaffar and Jaffar’s servants the scholar Dabir and guard captain Asim, to the souk of Baghdad. This trip is laden with fate, as a visit to a fortuneteller leads to the revelation of prophecies which drives much of the social conflict of the novel. Not coincidentally, an encounter outside the fortune teller hooks Dabir and Asim into a plot by the vengeful Firouz to use the ancient lost city of Ubar to throw the Caliphate into chaos. Joined on their quest south to find the city and stop a group of miscreants from their treacherous plan by Jaffar’s intellectually precocious niece Sabiriah and by an elderly fire wizard, Dabir and Asim are swept into a tale right out of the Arabian Nights that takes them from the streets of Baghdad to the titular Desert of Souls.
Desert of Souls slides easily from Historical Fantasy to sword and sorcery in surprisingly short order (with the appearance of an animated monkey) and never loses its mise-en-scene of the 8th century Middle East. Here, the characters never take the dark magic and dark doings for granted as everyday occurrences. In point of fact, Jaffar is extremely skeptical of the existence of magic and arcane doings altogether, even having experienced them. In this way, it does have the feel of a historical action-adventure novel with sword and sorcery underpinnings, rather than a sword and sorcery novel with historical overtones. (I do wonder if the forthcoming Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed will flip this dynamic).
A sword and sorcery novel lives, breathes and dies on its action sequences. Can the novel pull off entertaining action that, if when it is not plausible, gets a pass by the rule of cool? That is a large portion of the “grade” I give to novels of this type. So how does The Desert of Souls stack up? Well, let me show you the first set piece combat and let you judge for yourself. Jaffar, Asim and Dabir have stumbled into an encounter between some ruffians and a dying man that is not at all clear who is in the right. Desert of Souls plunges us right into the action.
Dabir stepped to my side and drew his own sword. There is, of course, a vast gulf separating the competent from the skilled, but the ruffians could not see that gulf as Dabir took a confident stance; he held his blade well.
Jaffar, behind us, had knelt and was speaking softly to the injured man, but I could not hear, for the fat rogue spoke again.
“He has stolen our property,” he said petulantly. “Give aid to honest citizens and step aside.”
“That may be,” Dabir said. “Let us sheath weapons and consult reasonably.”
This puzzled the fat one, who glanced to his right, where the snake waited.
“Kill them,” the little man hissed.
The fat man bellowed, as is the manner of bulls, and charged Dabir. The tall one leapt at me with an overhand swing. I sidestepped and his blade whished past even as my own sliced through his abdomen. I was certain of the strike and did not watch the impact or subsequent fall, for my eyes were already upon the one with the surly grimace. He, too, charged and his strike at my head was more skilled than his comrade’s. Almost I threw up my right shoulder, but I remembered I did not wear armor, and dropped to one knee. I felt the wind of the sword’s passage over my head.
There are those who say combat is a whirlwind that leaves no time for thought. I find that the world seems slowed at such moments, also that my thinking is clear and steady, and that my soul sings with life.
Dabir and the fat man traded wary blows to my left while the snake watched.
I sprang to my feet. The big-boned one caught my blow with a desperate swing. There was power there, but no finesse, and I locked blades and forced his down and offside. He was wide open, and his eyes were wide as my sword tip sliced across the front of his throat. Blood sprayed. He clutched his ruined neck with his hands and he fell.
The snake cursed, backed away and darted off. The fat man sprinted after him, puffing heavily. Both disappeared around a house and I started to follow before recalling my duty was to safeguard Jaffar.
My master had turned the man over onto his back. Dabir sheathed his unbloodied blade and knelt now at the dying man’s side, seeking for his wound. A simple look at his blood-soaked clothing told me there was no bandage wide enough to save him–surely there was more blood without than within. His face was as pale as winter sky.
Yet Dabir exposed a wound in the man’s trunk and was wiping the blood and gore clear with the fellow’s clothing so that he might see the extent of the injury. Jaffar, a kind man, cradled the fellow’s head and pressed a water sac to his lips.
The fellow drank one, then shook his head, agitated. “The door,” he muttered “You must tell…the caliph…”
“The door–the door pulls. Do not let them put them on…”
The master looked up at me, then back down at the man,, whose eyes relaxed and looked upon the angels and the glory of God.
In addition to entertaining action that never flags — Jones seems to have taken Van Vogt’s dictum about throwing a changeup at every turn to heart — the novel’s strength is the relationship between scholar Dabir and guard captain Asim. They are an unlikely pair to be friends or even allies (especially given Asim’s overt hostility toward another scholarly character). However, in true evocation of the Arabian Nights, there is a digression during the trip south in which Asim tells a story of a past adventure involving Jaffar, Asim and Dabir. It is a story-within-a-story that Scheherazade would have been proud of, and it shows off how Asim and Dabir were first thrown together.
What didn’t work for me? While I do understand the cultural and historical problems with a female character in 8th Century Middle East, I am not entirely certain that the plot of Sabirah was handled as deftly as it might have been. To have a female character at all with any agency whatsoever is a remarkable feat given the historical culture, however, the circumstances that manage to keep her on the journey from Baghdad feel a little strained. Also, the dynamics around the return of the pair of Baghdad feel off, as if the book wanted a particular ending for the characters (possibly to allow for more adventures for the duo). It might not surprise you that, again, this involves Sabirah’s story but it goes beyond that as well.
One more nit and its a minor one: my recent reading of Redemption in Indigo has made me more acutely aware, these days, of the roles of narrators in stories, especially when they break the fourth wall. The Desert of Souls is, as the book (especially the last chapter) makes clear, a story that is being told, but there is nothing in the beginning that suggests this explicitly besides the past tense first person narration. We begin in medias res with the death of Jaffar’s parrot, but I think the novel might have been better served with a symmetry at beginning and ending with the framing device of the narrator.
These issues and nits aside, however, I enjoyed this book immensely. It had me constantly invoking the opening theme song of Aladdin in my head, and the action and adventure kept me turning the pages to find out what was going to happen next. I would be extremely interested in finding out what else Dabir and Asim get up to after the events of The Desert of Souls, and after reading it, I’d wager you might as well.