THE DESERT OF SOULS
Howard Andrew Jones
$24.99/309 pp/March 2011
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Howard Andrew Jones's debut novel, The Desert of Souls, is a story which could have been pulled directly from One Thousand and One Nights, however instead of being told to Shahryar by Scheherazade this story is told to the reader by Asim, the captain of the guard for Jaffar, vizier to Harun al-Rashid. Asim tells a story that begins in the known world of Baghdad, travels to Basra and the deserts of Arabia, and eventually enters a supernatural world.
An incognito journey into the marketplace leads Jaffar, Asim, and the scholar Dabir to the tent of a fortuneteller. Although it is clear that she has provided each man with one of the other's fortunes, Jaffar trusts her enough to banish Dabir based on his own interpretation of the prophecy. Upon leaving her tent, however, they come upon a man fleeing from thieves. The find a golden doorpull and take it back to Jaffar's palace, where they learn it is sought by the Greeks who had been chasing the man. When the Greeks take the doorpull and flee south, Jaffar orders Asim, Dabir, and the poet Hamil after them to retrieve the item.
It isn't just the three men chasing the Greeks. Jones makes them part of a retinue that includes several of Asim's soldiers, including his beloved nephew, Mahmoud, and a stowaway, Jaffar's niece Sabirah. In Jaffar's palace, Dabir taught Sabirah and the budding relationship between the two is what led Jaffar to decide to banish the sage. With the discovery that Sabirah is with them, Asim must make the difficult choice of whether to forego their mission to return her to Baghdad, or keep after the Greeks and avert the potential fall of Harun al-Rashid's empire.
While The Desert of Souls is full of set pieces and interesting places, from their sojourn among the Marsh Arabs to the destroyed city of Ubar, however for all that this places evince a sense of wonder, the real heart of the story is in the relationships, all of which are complex and informed by the actions of not just the principles, but also their comrades. Asim's friendship with Dabir must take into account Dabir's relationship with Sabirah, the fact that he has fallen out of favor with Jaffar, and a surprise relationship that was kept hidden. While Asim and Dabir are a partnership, reminiscent in many ways of the classic Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, they are also individuals. Leiber's characters always felt like they were two halves of a whole. Dabir and Asim are clearly their own people who mostly work together, but don't always trust each other.
Jones has previously written about these characters, and in fact in one chapter he summarizes a previously published story, but The Desert of Souls is their first novel-length adventure. The setting and situations Jones has set up are clearly designed to allow these characters a great deal of latitude in potential future adventures as their relationships become more complex and they explore their world, which is currently defined, but not limited, by the milieu of the One Thousand and One Nights.
The Desert of Souls captures the spirit of traditional high fantasy stories, adding a welcoming and different setting. While Jones's characters seem familiar and are clearly descended from the heroic partnerships which have come before them, they are also unique and offer plenty of room for growth, as both individuals and as a team. With several short stories behind them in addition to this novel, Jones has created a duo which should be able to gain a following as they have further adventures.
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