One of the legitimate complaints about SF/F literature these days is that in the authors’ fervent, self-conscious attempts to Make A Point, Preach To The Choir, or Demonstrate Literary Talent, basic story-telling elements such as plot, characters, and sheer enjoyment tend to be swept out the window. Long gone are the days of the little novel of 65k words, which didn’t attempt to Lecture, Educate, Browbeat, or even Impress us, but was content to merely provide the reader with a pleasurable few hours visiting faraway places and magical lands.
The magic of Howard A. Jones’s The Desert of Souls is its admirable lack of literary ambition and its unfashionable focus on simply telling an entertaining tale of two remarkable and very different heroes who refuse to shirk their duty in the face of either evil or danger.
The Desert of Souls could almost be characterized as a buddy-cop movie set in a fantastic version of the Abbasid Caliphate, except for the fact that the two friends are not police officers and neither of them fit the customary motif of the witty young rogue who breaks all the rules or his partner, the curmudgeonly old vet who just wants to retire and collect his pension. Asim and Dabir are instead a pairing of brains and muscle, although Asim, the captain of a high-ranking aristocrat’s personal guard, is no dummy, and Dabir, the aristocrat’s pet scholar, is far from a pencil-necked coward. Indeed, one of the subtly funnier aspects of the book is the way the scholar regularly strides blithely, though open-eyed, into mortal dangers in a fearless manner that makes the much more experienced military man wince.
Style: 3 of 5 Jones’s prose is unaffected althought it it flows too fluidly to be described as workmanlike. It is essentially invisible, which is precisely as it should be in this sort of action-adventure story. It is, however, somewhat less turgid than would be expected from such an outspoken advocate of adventure pulp fiction. It is clear that while Jones may have been inspired by writers such as Howard and Burroughs, he does not limit himself to being an imitator of them.
Story: 4 of 5 The plot is strong throughout its development from what feels like a somewhat contrived beginning to a very satisfying ending. It is a little unusual, not only in that it reverses what is much more often seen in fantastic literature, (which is to say a perfectly plausible beginning leading to a contrived end), but it also manages to throw what is a very unexpected curveball or two along the way that cannot be anticipated despite a hint that quite literally could not be more apparent to the reader. While it does happen to feature the dread river journey as well as the capture of the protagonists that is inevitable in this genre, the former is mercifully cut short in a fairly spectacular manner and the latter is not only handled with rather more aplomb than is customary, but sans villainous monologuing. (Like most readers of A Dance with Dragons, I now bear the psychic scars as well as an instinctive aversion to river journeys.) In summary, it is a bang-up story well tuned to its environs and entertaining throughout.
Characters: 4 of 5 The characters are without question the strongest aspect of the novel. The relationships, and not only the one between Asim and Dabir, draw the reader deeper into the story as well as the characters themselves. The short timeframe of the story precludes much in the way of character development, but there is genuine relationship development, particularly in one relationship that gradually transforms from one of mutual dislike to not entirely grudging respect. The characters respond to each other, and take the consequences of their own actions on others quite seriously, and even the villain is not presented as a cardboard stock character, but a fully fleshed individual whose actions are not without rational justification. And while some might complain that most of the characters are a little more noble than one might be so fortunate as to encounter on a regular basis in the real world, this respect for the literary tradition of the action-adventure genre is more than welcome in light of the deluge of depraved, depressed, and diabolical anti-heroes that presently populate so much modern fantasy. The Desert of Souls is written in the long and hallowed tradition of heroic fiction and Asim and Dabir are more than bona fide heroes, they are heroes with souls.
Originality: 3 of 5 There are a few original elements to The Desert of Souls, particularly the titular one, but I think it is the novel’s abandonment of the feverished, and usually futile, pursuit of the original that makes the book as coherent and enjoyable as it is. The only area I think might have actually benefited from a more original approach is in the way in which Islam is presented. Unlike far too many genre writers, Jones presents the historical religion of his characters in a straightforward and realistic manner, they simply believe what they believe and are not mere foils for the author’s own perspective. But while Jones’s presentation of Islam is an educated one that suits the story, it is an intrinsically Western presentation. Those who have read The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz or other writers from the Arabic world will understand whereof I write.
Overall: 7 of 10 The Desert of Souls is one of the best action-adventure novels I have read in quite some time. It harks back to the days when a novel was intended to tell a cracking story rather than serve as a vehicle for the author’s Message. It is very much in line with the action-focused storytelling of Black Gate magazine and I believe any Black Gate subscriber will greatly enjoy The Desert of Souls. Howard Jones is an intelligent writer and a talented storyteller who knows how to focus on the most important elements of a good book, and it will be very interesting to see where his literary career goes from here.
The mosque on the grounds of Jaffar’s palace was not quite as large as that upon the grounds of the caliph’s palace – my master knew better – but the calligraphy decorating its walls rivaled or perhaps even surpassed the caliph’s in grandeur. We made ablutions, then set to our prayers.
When I am troubled, I bow to Mecca and pray to God, and my spirit is eased; it is as though a mighty river sweeps me up and carries me upon its current, my back to the stream bed, my face to the stars. Prayer both soothes and comforts. Yet this day my mind was elsewhere. My brother Tariq had warned me that I must always mean the words but that day I dishonored his memory; that day my spirit was uneasy and I focused less upon the marvels of God than upon the burdens of Dabir, and the legends of lost Ubar.
After prayers Jaffar put off the servants who demanded this or that from him, and put aside the request of one of his wives to join him for a fine meal, and returned with us to the room of study. Along the way he was at his charming best, alert and witty, although it was plain to see Dabir was troubled. I think Jaffar meant to put him at ease.
As it happened, God had veiled the sky with black clouds, so that it seemed night chased eagerly after the evening. The halls were dark.
A particularly loud blast of thunder heralded our arrival at the study room, rattling the palace just as Dabir pushed open the doors. Darkness can clothe the unknown in malignance, thus when the dark man shapes hunched by the chest whirled at our entry, I thought them dwarf demons sent up from hell.