Friday, February 25, 2011

The Desert of Souls

Many of the blurbs for Howard Andrew Jones debut novel, The Desert of Souls compare it to, among other things, Sherlock Holmes, The Arabian Nights, and the works of Robert E. Howard. Having just finished the book I can see where those comparisons come from. The scholar Dabir is somewhat like Holmes in his ability to discern information from physical evidence. Obviously the setting, 8th Century Baghdad, is going to bring to mind the Arabian Nights, what with all the Viziers and Caliphs and such. And certainly there is quite a bit of the sort of sword swinging action that we expect from Robert E. Howard, not only the father of sword & sorcery, but also quite the teller of historical adventures.
However to call Desert of Souls a mish mash of other authors or other genres is to do the book a disservice. Souls is a very original book, a tale of historical sword & sorcery with a setting very different from the quasi-European background so prevalent in today’s fantasy novels and a narrative viewpoint unlike any other in current fantasy fiction. What struck me about the protagonists of Desert of Souls, Dabir the wise man and Asim the soldier is how likable they are. How real. These are characters you’d like to hang out with. (I should also point out that despite the above descriptions, the pair is not neatly divided into brains and brawn. Asim is quite clever and capable, and Dabir will wade in with a blade when he needs to.)
You’ve heard me mention Howard Andrew Jones before, usually in reference to his editorship of the Bison Harold Lamb collections, and in fact it’s kind of funny that two of the things I mentioned in my review of Lamb’s story Forward! Can also be applied to Jones in Desert of Souls. The first is how Jones’ often deceptively easygoing narration lulls you into a sense of calm so that you get smacked in the face when the action breaks out. The other is that Jones seems very comfortable using protagonists of a different culture. To paraphrase something Scot Oden said about Lamb, the nationality of Jones’ characters is far less important than their humanity.
The plot gets rolling with “whickering blades” as Dabir and Asim attempt to rescue a man pursued by a group of armed attackers. The man dies but not before leaving the pair with a cryptic dying message and a strange artifact, a golden door pull inscribed with weird markings.
Soon Dabir, Asim, and their master Jaffar learn the hard way that they should have obeyed the old adage about Greeks bearing gifts when some visitors show up seeking information about the door pull. Things go awry and dark sorcery is employed to steal the door pull and its mate, owned by the Caliph, and Dabir and Asim find themselves turban deep in swords, sorcery, monsters and mayhem. There’s also romance, mystery, and suspense, all told in an engaging voice by Jones. All this and a lost city too. I read Desert of Souls in two sittings. If I hadn’t had to go to work I’d have read it straight through.
Anyway, if you’re tired of the latest Lord of the Rings clones and looking for something different, or if you just enjoy a well-told story of adventure, romance, and magic in an exotic setting, then pick up Desert of Souls. Highly recommended.

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