Every now and again, though, I come across a contemporary fantasy work that bucks these trends. Howard Andrew Jones's debut novel, The Desert of Souls, is such a one. Set in 8th century Baghdad, it presents itself as a first-person account by Asim, the captain of the guard of the vizier Jaffar, of the adventure he has following the death of his master's beloved parrot. In an effort to cheer up Jaffar, Asim suggests that the nobleman disguise himself and venture forth into Baghdad to see its sights and thus have a grand story to share with the caliph when returns to the city, thereby earning favor in his eyes. Jaffar agrees to his captain's plan, bringing the soldier along with him, as well as the scholar Dabir, who serves as tutor to his niece, Sabirah.
While wandering through the streets of Baghdad, the trio comes to the shop of an old woman reputed to be able to predict the future. At their urging, the woman reads each of their fates. To Dabir, she says:
"You shall be known far and wide as a slayer of monsters and protector of the caliphate. Fame will go before and after you; heroes shall listen to tell of your exploits with envious ears."To Asim, she says:
"Your bravery will not be unknown, but in later days it will grow when you take up the difficult weapons of pen and parchment; the fruits of these labors shall carry your name down the ages."To Jaffar, she says:
"High have you risen and higher still shall you rise, until you lose your head when you dare to love a woman beyond your station. Your master will weep, but he shall not spare you."While all three men stand in shock at the future the old woman has prophesied for them, she adds:
"You stand at a juncture," the woman said to all of us. "If you delay, if you do not rise and take immediately to the street, none of this shall come to pass, and your lives shall be forgotten in the greater misery that shall follow."Believing the woman to have been, at best, mistaken in her auguries and, at worst, a fraud, the three companions leave her shop, only to stumble into a man bleeding in the street outside, seemingly the victim of theft. It is here that the story of The Desert of Souls begins in earnest and it's a story whose pace never slackens and that engaged my interest for the entirety of its 305 pages.
Yes, 305 pages. The Desert of Souls has to be one of the most lean fantasy novels I've seen published in recent years, but that leanness is not due to a lack of substance. Like the best stories of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, The Desert of Souls wastes no time with extraneous details or self-indulgent digressions, getting straight to the meat of the matter. This is all the more remarkable, because the novel is set in an unfamiliar historical and cultural setting and Jones does a superb job of conveying the differences, both subtle and overt, between 8th century Baghdad and the pseudo-medieval Europe found in so much pulp fantasy. He does a similarly superb job of presenting a riveting plot and compelling characters, most notably Asim and Dabir, an unlikely pair that happily recall Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser while still being very much original creations.
The result is a historical fantasy that skimps neither on the history nor the fantasy. My own knowledge of the Abbasid Caliphate is limited and mostly from the Byzantine side of things, so I appreciated the wealth of information Jones has included about it in his novel without lengthy expository asides. Even moreso than its plot and characters, it is this that makes The Desert of Souls stand out in my mind. Jones has succeeded in transporting the reader to another time and place and never once forgets that, first and foremost, this is an adventure novel, not a history text. There's a humility about the book that only added to the book's numerous charms.
If, like me, you're not especially taken with contemporary fantasy has on offer, you should definitely take a look at The Desert of Souls. It's a fun read very much in the tradition of the best pulp fantasy but with plenty of unique pleasures owing to its historical and cultural setting.