Sunday, August 14, 2011

Review: The Desert of Souls

This is a review that originally appeared on the gaming site RPGnet. Their review system asks you to give a star rating from one to five. All in all I'd rather not assign star ratings, but I understand that they're useful as a shorthand impression. So, if I assume The Lord of the Rings is a five, Howard Andrew Jones' The Desert of Souls gets a four. I hope that gives you the idea that I liked it. Here's the review.

Short take: The Desert of Souls is a highly entertaining fantasy set in a well-realized Arabian Nights setting. It pulls off the neat trick of evoking Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber at the same time, while remaining its own thing.

Three issues up front: 1. This is my first review for RPGnet. Feedback is welcome. 2. Full disclosure: the author is also an editor at Black Gate magazine, which published a story of mine. 3. There will be mild spoilers, mostly of the first half.

The Premise

It is the era of Haroun al-Rashid, the ruler famously depicted in the stories of The Thousand and One Nights, a time of prosperity for the sprawling Abbasid Caliphate. It is also a time of strange wonders, for those who dare to look. Magic and monsters exist, and demons and djinn... and among those wise in such matters are two sorcerers plotting to destroy the city of Bagdhad and the empire it crowns.

Fortunately there are two other men, heroes both, placed by fate to stop them.

In a sense the swordsman Asim and the scholar Dabir aren't cut from the usual heroic fantasy cloth. They're not scrappy rogues, nor noble princes, nor even jaded veterans. They're household servants to Jaffar, the Caliph's vizier. Asim is his guard captain, and Dabir is his advisor and a tutor to his niece, Sabirah. They are comfortable and content, and have duties that would ordinarily make dashing off on a mad adventure, well, mad. But when Jaffar's mood plummets with the death of a beloved parrot, Asim takes it upon himself to cheer his employer up with an incognito stroll through storied Bagdhad. Dabir gets dragged along.

Asim, our narrator, will come to regret this plan. What happens next will also set the course for his future.

The Story (mild spoilers follow)

On their stroll about town our heroes and their master speak with a fortune teller. She pronounces these futures: Dabir will be known as a slayer of monsters, Asim as a great storyteller, and Jaffar as a  tragic figure who tried to love beyond his station.

Jaffar believes the telling true, but is also inclined to think the three fates got mixed up. Jaffar has aspirations as an author, and so, he reasons, surely he is the storyteller -- not the blunt guard captain Asim, who can only be the monster-slayer. That leaves Dabir as the man who loves beyond his station. Perhaps Jaffar already suspects Dabir of feelings for Jaffar's brilliant niece Sabirah. In any event, Jaffar's mistrust of Dabir clouds the rest of the story.

Such musings must wait, however, for the fortune-teller also states that an important change in the trio's lives will begin in the street outside -- and her words are proven correct when a wounded man fleeing assassins collides with them. Asim's swordplay, with some assistance from Dabir, drives off the villains, but the injured man cannot be saved. In classic style, the story's main hook is revealed.

"The door," he muttered. "You must tell … the caliph …"
"The caliph?" Jaffar asked. "What?"
"The door -- the door pulls. Do not let them put them on …"

The master looked up at me, then back down at the man, whose eyes relaxed and looked upon the angels and the glory of God.

The door pulls are magical artifacts originating in the lost and accursed city of Ubar. Affix them to a door of the correct dimensions in the proper spot within that locale (so Dabir and Asim are later informed) and the way opens to a magical land of great power. Such is the intent of two sorcerers who seek this power to destroy the Caliphate, one out of revenge, one out of loyalty to a foreign power.

Jaffar does not really believe in magic, but he does believe in treasure. When the door pulls come to light and are snatched by the villains, Jaffar assigns Dabir to track down both. He also commands Asim to assist -- and to observe, for Jaffar's mistrust of Dabir's character continues to grow. Asim himself begins to wonder about Dabir, and the doubts are not improved when Sabirah sneaks aboard their river boat and joins the quest.

The journey is tangled and deadly, as our heroes face cutthroats, undead animals, a soul-hungry djinn, and greater dangers before they can catch the sorcerers and save the realm. By then their lives will be forever changed.

Things I Liked

There are many enjoyable elements here, and they work together smoothly. Asim's narration has a droll, dry humor to it, befitting an older man remembering a young man's adventures. We rarely hear Asim-the-narrator talk directly to the reader but the voice is there, and sometimes it's as if he is rolling his eyes at what the younger Asim's gotten himself into. There's also a nice irony in that initially no one, the younger Asim included, really believes he's got it in him to be a storyteller, even though the narration makes it clear he does.

The wary friendship between Dabir and Asim, complicated by Jaffar's suspicions and Sabirah's possible feelings for one or the other of them, is built up nicely, until by the final battle they are working as a capable team. One of the best moments in the book has them walking without much hope through the otherworldly desert of the title, reminiscing about their former wives. Asim has lost his first wife to sickness, and the second proved a bad match. Dabir's wife was killed when the Caliph messily put down an uprising -- a point which links him one of the villains, as both have similar reasons to hate the Caliphate, though Dabir for his part remains loyal.

That loyalty brings me to another element I like. Dabir and Asim are unusual sword-and-sorcery protagonists in that they're law-and-order types, doing their best to do the right thing, without being naive or stupid or cruel about it. While I've enjoyed plenty of stories about rogues and mercenaries and others decked out in moral grey tones, it's refreshing to see heroes who are trying to be just that, doing their utmost to save civilization, for all that they see its blemishes. Such heroism may be the standard for high/epic fantasy, but for S&S it's a striking choice.

Things I Didn't Like

There is an important supporting character who pretty much vanishes from the scene late in the book, in a way that didn't seem satisfying to me. It by no means ruins the story, but it left a sad feeling for me, as I very much like the character, whom I hope will return in a future installment.

Also, I wish there was more scene-setting and sensory detail of the historical milieu. There's certainly enough to ground the story, but not enough to fully transport me in the way I prefer my fantasy to do. I realize this is a matter of taste. The level of description I'd prefer might annoy other readers, who would want to get on with the action. Still, I was happiest midway in the book when Dabir and Asim stepped into an otherworldly realm and Jones' descriptions really took off.

Your-Mileage-May-Vary Department

True to the restricted rights of women in this setting, the story gives us few female characters. I think Jones does well with the character of Sabirah, who defies convention without ever seeming like an anachronistic transplant from 21st Century America. Nevertheless this is a very male-dominated story, and for some readers that may be worth knowing going in.

This is also most definitely a series book. It refers back to a prior adventure of Dabir and Asim (which appeared in an issue of Black Gate.) Jones uses a neat device for relating this backstory, by having Asim tell a condensed version of the story and surprising himself by being quite good at it. Despite having read the earlier tale I found this section entertaining. I don't know how a reader new to the characters would react, however.

Naturally the book leaves itself room for sequels. Some of the issues raised by the fortune telling at the start of the book are not resolved by the end (though we can see which way the wind is blowing.) We're left certain there are more adventures to follow. On the other hand, the immediate plot is satisfyingly concluded, so the story doesn't feel incomplete. If you have a strong allergy to series books, however, you may wish everything was tied up more tightly.


If there are two main posts holding up the circus tent of sword-and-sorcery, they are Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. While it may be an exaggeration to say that all subsequent S&S follows in the footsteps of one or the other, I do think that most later writers stick close to one tent pole or the other. I'd give both authors descriptors like fast-paced, energetic, colorful. But REH's work I'd also associate with words like historical, gritty, and serious, and Leiber's more with words like theatrical, urbane, and humorous.

The point is, I've rarely seen work that mixes both strains as thoroughly as The Desert of Souls. There's Michael Moorcock's Elric stories, an ironic take on Conan by someone who reveres Leiber. And the stories of James Enge I've read, about his wandering wizard Morlock Ambrosius, do have a combination of REH's edge and Leiberesque flash. But the mix in The Desert of Souls draws equally from both wells. Here you have adventurers as comfortable in cities as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (albeit on the lawful rather than larcenous side of the coin) setting out into remote and deadly environs that would suit Conan perfectly. I suspect the apparent ease with which Jones does this has to do with long practice and study of earlier writers -- not just Howard and Leiber but farther back to such ancestors as Harold Lamb, whose works Jones, wearing his editor's hat, has worked hard to revive.

An Afterward on Gaming

There are lots of wonderful books that translate poorly to games. There are also wonderful books that serve as great game inspiration because they are filled with a toybox of interesting ideas, settings, characters, and concepts that just naturally work themselves into a gamemaster's brain.

But there's a third category that's quite rare, well-written stories, that, for whatever reason, are practically scenarios waiting to be played. Some of the tales I'd put on that list are Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart, Cats Have No Lord by Will Shetterly, "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth" by Lord Dunsany, "The Island in the Lake," by Phyllis Eisenstein, and "The Fabulous Sea Below" by Jessica Amanda Salmonson.

And now Jones' book as well. I could see the plot device of the magical door pulls extracted for many different fantasy settings, and if you're looking for an adventure for an Arabian Nights setting, this book can provide a great template, with several interesting locations.

(See also my post placing Dabir and Asim in the tradition of Holmes and Watson.)

(Edited for formatting fixes.)

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