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The Desert of Souls
Howard Andrew Jones
Thomas Dunne Books, 320 pages

The Desert of Souls
Howard Andrew Jones
When not helping run his small family farm or spending time with his amazing wife and children, Howard Andrew Jones can be found hunched over his laptop or notebook, mumbling about flashing swords and doom-haunted towers. He has worked variously as a TV cameraman, a book editor, a recycling consultant, and a college writing instructor. He was instrumental in the rebirth of interest in Harold Lamb's historical fiction, and has assembled and edited 8 collections of Lamb's work for the University of Nebraska Press. His stories of Dabir and Asim have appeared in a variety of publications over the last ten years.

Howard Andrew Jones Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Howard Andrew Jones has been publishing stories about the scholar Dabir and the soldier Asim -- sort of an 8th Century Arabian version of Holmes and Watson -- for several years now, in places like Black Gate and Jim Baen's Universe. These have been consistently very enjoyable. Jones is an expert on Sword and Sorcery and Adventure fiction -- he has edited books of Harold Lamb's stories, he was the founding editor of Flashing Swords magazine, and the longtime Managing Editor at Black Gate. And he proved early on that he could translate his knowledge of fantasy adventure stories into the real thing. The Desert of Souls is his first published novel. (I should add, in the interest of full disclosure, that Howard is an associate of mine, and a friend, because of our shared experience at Black Gate.)

As with all the Dabir and Asim stories, The Desert of Souls is told by Asim. It is not really an "origin story" for the duo, though it comes early in their career, before they truly became close associates. (The actual origin story, previously published in Black Gate as "Whispers from the Stone" is incorporated in the book as a tale told by Asim to a traveling company.) This story also serves as something of an explanation for Asim's later career as a chronicler -- as the book opens he is shown being rather dismissive of a poet in his Master's service, but for a variety of reasons, including a prophesy that he will take up the pen, he changes his attitude.

But what of the story, you say, the story! It's quite as good as any of us fans of Dabir and Asim might have hoped. The two are both members of the household of Jaffar, a prominent judge in Baghdad and an associate of the caliph. Asim is the Captain of Jaffar's guards, and Asim is the tutor to Jaffar's beautiful -- and very intelligent -- young niece, Sabirah. Attempting to raise Jaffar's spirits after the death of his beloved parrot, Dabir and Asim happen upon an escaping thief, and recover a valuable ancient door pull. Dabir soon realizes that the door pull is connected with the disappeared ancient city of Ubar, and that it might be put to terrible uses. And when it is stolen by a Greek visitor associated with Firouz, a fire wizard from a group with a (rather justified) grudge against the caliph, Dabir and Asim are sent on a journey to recover the door pull before Firouz can get to Ubar and put it to whatever fell purpose he has in mind.

Things are complicated when they find that Sabirah has stowed away on the ship in which they follow Firouz. Not only is this bad because Sabirah will be in harm's way, but because her student/teacher relationship with Dabir has already set tongues wagging, and this will only increase suspicions of impropriety. (Which in this culture means one is risking one's head.) But the mission to stop Firouz seems more urgent. Their journey is full of mundane problems like seasickness, traditional adventure problems like sea battles and sword fights, and imaginative magical concerns. (I particularly liked the worm they encounter in the title Desert of Souls.) Jones manages two climaxes without making the second seem an anticlimax, as there is first an encounter in Ubar, and then a final resolution in Baghdad.

Dabir's approach is unrelentingly rational -- which is not to say he denies the reality of magic. Asim's is plainer, reflecting his soldierly background, which can get him in trouble when he fails to perceive Dabir's intentions. Both characters are excellently realized. The story is primarily about the adventure plot: the need to catch Firouz and stop him. But there is also an effective ongoing thread about the personal lives of the two protagonists. Jones also manages to interweave triumph and failure -- the characters do not succeed completely, and there are real costs to their falling short. This is a very satisfying first novel, and I will certainly be looking for the promised sequel. In the meantime, I suggest that any readers who haven't yet encountered this duo by all means buy The Desert of Souls, and also seek out their appearances at shorter lengths.

Copyright © 2011 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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