This week on Down the Stacks, we’ll be looking at The Desert of Souls, a story by Howard Andrew Jones that would not be out of place among the 1001 Arabian Nights.
The Desert of Souls takes place in the 8th-century Middle East, starting in Baghdad before heading off into the mystical wilderness of Arabian Night legends. Our hero and narrator is Captain Asim, who serves as the captain off the guard to Jaffar, who in turn serves as chief judge to the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid. Asim is a loyal and dutiful man who holds the morals of Islam in high regard and the social structures of his place and time even higher. The story begins with the death of Jaffar’s favorite parrot and an ill-timed chuckle from Asim which forces him to improvise having an idea to get his master’s mind off the bird: going to the market in disguise in search of an adventure which can be recounted to the Caliph later. So, Jaffar, Asim, and Jaffar’s in-house scholar Dabir end up in a fortune-teller’s receiving unpleasant fortunes and then, immediately afterward, caught up in an altercation between a dying man and a group of thugs. Once the thugs are chased off, the dying man bequeaths Jaffar with an ornamented door pull inscribed with ancient writing pointing toward the lost city of Ubar, which is rather like Atlantis except swallowed by the desert rather than the ocean. Asim and Dabir soon set off to find Ubar, racing against a Magian sorcerer and a Greek necromancer who desire Ubar’s secrets to wreak havoc on the Caliphate. Along the way, they also have to deal with Sabirah, Jaffar’s intelligent and willful daughter, ambushes, djinn, and the mysterious Desert of Souls itself.
Desert of Souls does read a lot like an Arabian Nights tale. There’s constant action with supernatural elements laid on top of an otherwise realistic setting, and the heroes require equal parts martial skill, sharp wits, and lots of luck to pull through against enemies far more skilled and prepared than they are. Asim himself faces great personal loss and crises of duty versus what’s right.
Considering the forces arraigned against them, neither Asim nor Dabir could succeed alone. Asim is the martial skill in the pair, nearly unsurpassed in swordfighting and preferring to just charge in an put a quick end to his enemy when they end up in the same room without bothering to gauge the foe’s abilities first. Dabir is the sharp wit: not much of a fighter but learned and quite clever, he prefers to play long games of guile to root out the enemy’s plan and hope that he managed to guess beforehand what counterstrategies and mystic tools he’d need. Together, Asim and Dabir can pull each other out of deadly situations and press on to a new plan.
Asim tends to downplay his storytelling ability, since he sees himself as a soldier first and foremost, but his first-person narration style has an almost poetic quality and narrative asides that blend smoothly into the story proper. Reading book feels like listening to an actual storyteller reciting a tale from a collection of Asim and Dabir’s exploits, which from the clues Asim drops extends both before and long after the events of The Desert of Souls. While the story is steeped heavily in 8th-century Islamic culture, it’s completely accessible by a 21st-century reader of any cultural background.
I highly recommend The Desert of Souls, and I hope that more of Asim and Dabir’s adventures eventually find their way into my hands.