REVIEW: The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones
The glittering tradition of sword-and-sorcery sweeps into the sands of ancient Arabia with the heart-stopping speed of a whirling dervish in this thrilling debut novel from new talent Howard Andrew Jones
In 8th century Baghdad, a stranger pleads with the vizier to safeguard the bejeweled treasure he carries, but he is murdered before he can explain. Charged with solving the puzzle, the scholar Dabir soon realizes that the treasure may unlock secrets hidden within the lost city of Ubar, the Atlantis of the sands. When the treasure is stolen from his care, Dabir and Captain Asim are sent after it, and into a life and death chase through the ancient Middle East.
Stopping the thieves—a cunning Greek spy and a fire wizard of the Magi—requires a desperate journey into the desert, but first Dabir and Asim must find the lost ruins of Ubar and contend with a mythic, sorcerous being that has traded wisdom for the souls of men since the dawn of time. But against all these hazards there is one more that may be too great even for Dabir to overcome…
Dear Mr. Jones,
Years ago I enjoyed “The Waters of Eternity,” a collection of short stories about the two main characters of this novel. It was a delightful intro to them, their relationship, and the fantasy creatures and monsters of the Middle East. Though, based on the stage of their friendship in those tales, this story seems to precede it, I remember not being lost while reading the anthology. I decided to finally head back and discover what adventure brought stalwart Captain Asim and intellectual Debir together.
The start of the story is, I’m afraid, a bit slow. It sets up the adventure as well as laying the foundation for some of mistrust that will unfortunately sour the relationship between Jaffar, a relative of the caliph and master of both Asim and Dabir, and the two men. He might be a judge in Baghdad but at times Jaffar tested my patience. I suppose if someone has been told their fate and doesn’t like what was heard, they will tend to twist circumstances and how they view things as they try to escape said fate. Jaffar is offstage for much of the book and I was glad of it.
I did enjoy watching the growing friendship of Asim and Dabir. It does take a long time as the two are nothing alike and Asim’s initial actions drag Dabir into the action against Dabir’s wishes. Asim is a plain spoken and acting man, a man of the sword whose usual modus operandi is “see the hill, take the hill.” Dabir is the scholar whose brilliant intellect has been nurtured at the House of Wisdom aka The Great Library of Baghdad. Dabir looks and ponders before acting then sometimes has to hold Asim back. It is through trial and error that the two build their trust and loyalty to each other leading to the desperate course that Asim must take to literally save Baghdad and the Caliphate.
Ah yes, one would think that scholarly Dabir would be telling the story but in fact it is Asim who relates all they endured. By doing so, he also reveals the truth of the fortune teller’s predictions. This is a sword and sandals swashbuckler set during the 8th century with both brains and brawn but brains end up doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the story. Bonus that it’s not just Dabir who is smart but also Jaffar’s niece Sabirah. I loved her determination to go along on the journey and the fact that she helps substantially. Boo, though, that she gets escorted off at the end probably to the fate she desperately wanted to avoid. At least her intelligence was acknowledged by her family.
Once it really got going, the action was nicely paced and kept my attention. Little details about Baghdad, river trips down the Tigris, marsh Arabs, the Empty Quarter, the type of food eaten, and political figures grounded the story and made it come alive. Parts of it were creepy (all the dead monkeys), chilling (the lack of concern shown by the djinn in taking a soul), frightening (with one of the most unusual monsters I’ve read about) and imaginative (the replay of the fate of the city of Ubar). Still, the ending had a whiff of deus ex machina though it was still satisfying to see how the villain got his just desserts. I chuckled a bit when Asim muses about how hard it is for villains to get and motivate good minions. It might not be perfect but it’s a nice break from the usual dragons, elves, goblins, and trolls of the fantasy genre. B-
After finishing the book, I spent a bit of time exploring some of the historical places and people mentioned such as the lost city of Ubar, aka the Altantis of the sands, the Abbasid Caliphate, Magians, marsh Arabs, and the House of Wisdom.