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The Desert of Souls Hardcover – Bargain Price, February 15, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
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If you like your fantasy dark, bloody, full of minutiae and ridden with angst, steer clear! The Desert of Souls is instead an adventure in the classic style presented with brevity, humour and charm. It does an admirable job of creating atmosphere and covers a lot of ground without ever getting sidetracked or bogged down. A few unintentional anachronisms (mugs of tea?) and grammatical/spelling infelicities aside, it stays firmly in style throughout, to the point that you can almost fancy you're reading a newly discovered tale from the Arabian Nights. The characters are engaging, though I was a little frustrated with how dumb Asim could be. On the other hand, by the end of the end of the book he's truly grown in both worldly wisdom and inner strength, and I look forward to seeing how he does in his next adventure with Dabir.
I'd appreciate a bit more a sense of wonder at those climatic moments where magic is involved and a better sense of how faith and magic coexist for the characters, but these are very minor quibbles. Overall, a fun and worthwhile read and I'd happily get myself the sequel.
In this his first novel author Howard Jones is already an accomplished writer, weaving a story with beautiful language and an apparently effortless mastery of the background of the Caliphate of Haroun el-Rashid. His prose is smooth, and sometimes deeply lyrical; his love of the desert, his evocation of ancient Basra and Baghdad, are a real pleasure to read. But it's his characters where he really shines: Jones has artfully managed to portray true heroes. Asim and Dabir, and their comrades, feel like real people, yet are also cast in an honest Golden Age mould - a perfect antidote to our cynical and divisive age. These aren't weak anti-heroes or tortured souls filled with self-doubt; they are people like you and I, thrust into extraordinary situations, and they rise to the occasion with a courage and humour which is as satisfying as it is stirring.
What struck me most about 'The Desert of Souls' was that Jones has succeeded in 'reclaiming' the world of the Arabian Nights for modern story-telling. Too often these days is the Middle East portrayed as a hostile, alien culture; in his novel Jones harks back to the love and respectful treatment of his source material shown by writers and adventurers such as Sir Richard Burton. It becomes a real place, a world we can understand, a people we can like and sympathize with as they face peril and ripping, action-packed adventure. It's a world of magic, mystery, and intrigue, but also one which touches on the themes of love, duty, loyalty and friendship which unite us all.
I thought of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser a lot during the Desert of Souls, but there's an optimism and light in Jones' characters and story-telling which is absent in Leiber's. His affection for his characters is clear, and we share his excitement that we are seeing two people at the very start of their path to greatness. I hope Howard Jones pens another novel quickly, and that we can follow Asim and Dabir's adventures as they grow!
If you like Fritz Lieber, or Robert Howard, or Harold Lamb, or early Michael Moorcock, I think you would really like this book.
The characters are well developed, in a mature literary way. Jones doesn't dumb down his character, which is what many authors do in many first-person fantasy novels today. The narrator is deceptively complex, has layers, and grows as a person throughout the story. In some ways, the narrator and the main protagonists of the story share and almost Sherlock Holmes and Watson like relationship. They are in the middle of a mystery. And that mystery has layers.
The action scenes are great, and the fantastical themes like magic and sorcery are handled very well actually. And the plot moves quickly, except for a mid novel desert interlude that is laden with philosophical implications. Some critics didn't like this part of the novel, I liked it, it's integral to the growth of the protagonists and strangely enough echos Lovecraft and his Cthulu mythos for perceptive readers.
In other words, this isn't your typical poorly written modern fantasy doorstop. The author is thoughtful and very good at his literary craft. Will this challenge some readers who are used to poorer material? I hope not, I think that anyone who has read good fantasy for a while would find this book at his or her level.
This fast-paced, sword and magic filled adventure, is set in an ancient Middle Eastern backdrop drawn with a good deal of verisimilitude. And I say that as a lifelong student of classical Arabic and Aramaic, and Middle Eastern lore.
How does that play out in an age of issues like cultural conflict, terrorism, and cultural appropriation? Well, I'm not sure how relevant that question is. The fact is that Jones manages to write a very readable, entertaining, well-paced, and thrilling fantasy, that is in a well researched cultural world. He doesn't shy away from aspects of Middle Eastern cultures that are different from our Western cultures. But he succeeds at respectfully and empathetically staging his novel in a very different culture than modern Anglo-American ones.
Which is the culture and world of Arabia a thousand years ago. Layered with intrigue. What's a shame, to me, is that this world electrified and inspired many generations of fantasy writers. HP Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, even Lord Byron (who in some ways was a fantasy or speculative fiction writer, for his age ). But because of modern political anxieties and tensions many people shy from fiction themed and set in that world.
Read it, it's a quick and entertaining and immersion of a read. You will feel like you are on distant shores, at a distant time, in the bazaars palaces and and temples of a long-lost age.