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Book Review: The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones

Genre: Sword and Sorcery, Historical Adventure
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Publication Date: February 15, 2011
ISBN-10: 0312646747
ISBN-13: 978-0312646745
Author Website: Howard Andrew Jones

The Desert of Souls is the debut novel from Howard Andrew Jones, managing editor of Black Gate. The first novel length adventure of Dabir and Asim – Jones’ protagonists of many short stories in a variety of publications – is a work evocative in both form and content of Scheherazade’s tales of The Arabian Nights, has the unusual settings of Prince of Persia or Fritz Leiber’s Lanhkmar, and is a superb blending of historical adventure with exotic sorcery.

Asim is Captain of the Guard in a well-connected prince-judge’s household of eight century Baghdad. Dabir is a scholar in the same court, tasked with instructing the Jaffar’s intelligent young niece, Sabirah. Asim, seeking to alleviate Prince Jaffar’s melancholy, suggests that along with Dabir, they go in “disguise” and walk among the less fortunate of Baghdad. At first, all is well, but when a fortune teller tells a future which Jaffar does not wish to hear, it could mean Dabir’s dismissal. The seemingly innocuous foray then turns really sinister when a man pursued by “Greeks” (by which Jones’ means Byzantines) falls dead at their feet. Asim is able to beat off the man’s attackers, but not in time to save his life. After Dabir searches the body, he finds a wondrous golden door pull, the pilfering of which will set Dabir and Asim forth on an adventure full of magic-wielding villains, dangerous deserts, and a troublesome tag-along as they attempt to regain the prize.

The story is an-action packed sword and sorcery adventure, like the best stories of Sinbad, or the historical adventures of Robert E. Howard. (Jones actually contributed an essay on historical influences to Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures, a recent re-release of some of Howard’s stories.) Sword fights, kidnappings, djinn, fire-wizards, and magical worlds are just some of the things the heroes encounter as they try to regain the golden door pull. Dabir and Asim go from one problem to the next in the plot.

This can sometimes lead to it reading like a series of short stories strung together. This is especially true of Dabir and Asim’s encounter with the serpent that gives the novel its title – while its cause was connected to the larger narrative, that portion of the novel reads more like a separate short story (though admittedly, it is a real page-turning section of the novel, perhaps the best part). At least one portion of the novel is heavily borrowed from a previously published story, “Whispers of the Stone” in Black Gate 12, though that one is set apart from the primary narrative intentionally and obviously. Jones does tie the rest of the story together through a chase of the villain Firouz, a vile magician set on destroying Baghdad, whom Dabir and Asim encounter on numerous occasions, but are always prevented by circumstances beyond their control from defeating.

As the narrator and co-protagonist, Asim tells the tale from the comfort of the future while also acting in the present. It is only his thoughts and his feelings that are present in the narrative, so that the entire novel is told from a first-person perspective. A similar novel in form would be Patrick Rothfuss The Name of the Wind, though unlike that novel, Jones’ narrative has only one primary arc and direction. Some readers may find themselves disliking the novel for this reason.

The story is tonally in the past tense, a style that can sometimes be difficult to read and can sap its vitality since the reader already knows the protagonist survives. For me, this past tense tonality came across as nod to the oral storytelling tradition. The reader feels like they are sitting at the feet of a bard or mummer’s troupe. This approach to the novel makes the occasional interjections of Asim the storyteller into the story of Asim the adventurer make more sense and be less mentally disruptive to the reader.

Save for Asim, the characters are not very full-bodied. Dabir follows second, though not nearly as full realized as the Asim while the rest are simple characters. Jaffar has some shades of gray in him, but he is still mostly the unreachable, untouchable Lord who will end you as soon as look at you. Sabirah, the niece is all naiveté, and she changes little through the story, causing Dabir and Asim no end of grief in the process. Firouz is standard villain, bent on destruction and revenge for its own sake. The rest of the characters are incidental and only important as their lives and deaths affect Asim.

The setting is great. Not many fantasy writers are telling stories set in the medieval Muslim world. For that, and for capturing the mystery and wonder of that place for Western readers, Jones is to be commended. Jones thoroughly envisions this historical area through clear description that is simple yet sumptuous in detail. Readers who enjoy The Arabian Nights will find much to appreciate in this novel. Readers also looking for new settings for fantasy novels may also want to try The Desert of Souls.

I liked portions of The Desert of Souls and found others less agreeable. I can appreciate what Jones was trying to do with the Asim narration (he has done it before, and to great effect in short stories featuring these characters) but I don’t think it came off really well in the novel-length format. I love the different setting and the sword and sorcery action coupled with quest fantasy motivations. I like the partnership of Dabir and Asim, an unlikely pair that work well together. I like that Jones’ characters fail as much as they succeed, though in the end they do win out. All in all, I like The Desert of Souls and found it an enjoyable sword and sorcery adventure. Scheherazade couldn’t have told it better.