The Desert of Souls
Howard Andrew Jones
Thomas Dunne, 2011
In 8th Century Baghdad the Captain of the Jaffar’s Royal Guard, Asim and the scholar Dabir are dispatched to uncover the mystery of a rune inscribed relic. The Desert of Souls by Black Gate editor Howard Andrew Jones is a fresh look at the sword and sorcery genre in a Arabic setting full of vibrant characters, dastardly villains, and strange landscapes. As Minsc said best: “Adventure, excitement, and steel on steel.” This is also Jones’ first novel and is perhaps one of the best debuts, likely the best debut, I’ve read since Ian Treglis’ Bitter Seeds last year. The Desert of Souls is, in a word, awesome. I don’t mean awesome in the colloquial sense that awesome has come to embody in recent years (though to be fair that applies as well). No, rather I mean that literally. The Desert of Souls does what the sword and sorcery (hell, any fantasy) story should: it inspires awe.
The adventure opens with a discussion about a dead parrot. A dead, possibly poisoned parrot. Not the most auspicious of openings for an adventure but Jones handles it deftly letting readers tag along in Asim’s head thus allowing for some humorous commentary on the disposition of said parrot. Thankfully this is not a novel about the mystery surrounding a parrot’s death (though I have to wonder if someone really did poison the parrot since the question is never answered). Rather, Jones uses the scene to segue into Asim’s suggestion that Jaffer venture out into the city undisguised more as a distraction than anything else. That the magical mystery that later ensues is in fact a diversion from a diversion is a thread that gets lost as the excitement of the adventure as our heroes plunge onward. That a writer can move from a dead parrot to a magical adventure involving a rogue Zaroastian Magician, alternate worlds, and ancient entities without really causing any eyebrow raising is perhaps the best indications that said writer is going to go far.
So moving beyond dead parrots the stoic and honorable Captain Asim and the well-educated and extremely resourceful Dabir set forth on the trail of a magical door pull facing the threat of a fire wielding magician, undead monkeys, and the complications of a forbidden romance with Jaffar’s niece. Gluing the whole story together, and often serving as an added complication for our heroes, is an unexpected prophecy from Baghdad fortune teller. The real glue is Jones’ adept use of the setting. While he admits in his afterward that historical liberties and outright inventions were taken Jones’ vision of an 8th century Arabian setting where magic is real is one that consistently rings true. From the darkened streets of Baghdad, to a trip down the river, to the ancient ruins of a long lost city Jones conveys a sense of magic to his realistic settings and, when it comes to the titular desert, a sense of reality to his magical ones.
I don’t want to spoil things too much but Asim and Dabir’s journey into the Desert is perhaps my favorite part of the novel and particularly their negotiation, conversation, and eventual confrontation with the entity that resides there are fresh in my mind. It is a scene that reveal much about the characters and the world they inhabit while at the same time exciting the imagination reader right be before thrilling them with some intense action. I really couldn’t ask for more in any single scene of a novel. Keep in mind The Desert of Souls is not like other modern fantasies. There is a decidedly old-school vibe here that hearkens back to the Howard, Lieber, Moore and the countless other sword and sorcery fantasists. At the same time there is a freshness here that is difficult to place. Yes, we’re on familiar ground but it familiar ground that feels exciting to explore once more. As I mentioned you’ll be hard pressed to find a debut as accomplished as The Desert of Souls. This is some top notch fantasy adventure fiction that will put a grin on your face. I want more. I had delayed this review (more than once) because well I didn’t really want to gush. See how well that worked!