Welcome to the debut of this new bi-weekly column, in which I get to wax recommendatious about great escapist literature every other Thursday. Because y’know, sometimes you don’t need a searing indictment of gender relations in a war-torn third-world country. Sometimes you just want to let an author take you somewhere neat in your mind, somewhere cool stuff is happening to interesting people in a page-turning kind of way, while the human condition looks after itself for a bit. That’s what this column will be about. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m not denigrating the works I’ll be writing about by describing them this way, nor would I turn up my nose at a book which has something insightful to say in amongst the satisfying story shenanigans. Although, to be honest, I kinda am denigrating the “serious works of modern literature” to which I contrasted them above. In my humble opinion, it’s often harder and more artistically respectable to transport a reader to a fantastic setting for a thoroughly diverting adventure than it is to simply bitch and moan about one’s mommy issues.)
Okay, mission statement out of the way. Let’s kick things off with a conscious, deliberate, and completely effective throwback to the historically-based pulp adventures of yore. The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones drops the reader into an eighth-century Baghdad that is, by the author’s own admission, based as much on the legends of the Thousand and One Nights as it is on real history. There we follow the clever (if headstrong) scholar Dabir ibn Khalil and his occasionally reluctant companion Asim el Abbas, servants of the caliph’s vizier (chief minister), as their pursuit of a stolen treasure might leave them the only men standing between the glorious city of Baghdad and a vengeful, sorcerous plot to wipe it from the world forever.
In addition to being the managing editor of the fine fantasy e-zine Black Gate, Howard Andrew Jones is also an acknowledged authority on the works of one Harold Lamb, a prolific author whose exotic, historically-based adventure tales frequently graced the pages of pulp adventure magazines like Argosy, All-Story, and Adventure from the late 1910s through the 1940s. In The Desert of Souls, Jones clearly wanted to channel the spirit of Lamb with a story rich in historical detail, exotic magicks, and swashbuckling derring-do. In that he has succeeded in grand fashion.
In the late eighth century, under the rule of the caliph Harun al-Rashid, Baghdad was at the height of its legendary magnificence, a jewel of the civilized world. In the household of the caliph’s young vizier Jaffar, the brilliant scholar Dabir ibn Khalil studies the sciences of the world (and tutors Jaffar’s beautiful niece Sabirah), while the stalwart Asim el Abbas serves steadfastly as the captain of the vizier’s guard. Of these men, only Dabir realizes that there is more to the world than the merely natural, so when a daring and sorcerous attack results in the theft of one of the caliph’s fabulous treasures, Dabir’s pursuit of the thieves will lead them far out into the dangerous Desert of Souls, where an evil magician is trying to use the stolen treasure to find the Keeper of Secrets and a mystical power that will allow him to destroy Baghdad utterly. Then Sabirah complicates the mission by stowing away. Even Dabir’s cunning and learning, and Asim’s courage and strength might not be enough to solve the mystery, stop the villain, and save the girl. But they’re sure as heck gonna try!
The best thing about The Desert of Souls is that it does satisfy on a few different levels. There is, of course, the simple excitement of the plot, as the danger and mystery draw Dabir and Asim into one exciting predicament after another. The reader never lacks for spectacle or action with this story.
But, in addition to the skillfully told adventure plot—one definitely worthy of Jones’ idol Lamb—there are layers to the story that work for a more modern sensibility. Dabir the brain and Asim the brawn are definitely part of the buddy-film tradition, as they bicker and butt heads, then seamlessly transition into thinking alike and kicking butt as one. There’s almost a Holmes and Watson vibe to them that does a good job of playing up the mystery aspect of the plot, as Dabir thinks his way through the theft and the scheming of their opponents while Asim (the generally somewhat wooly-headed narrator) relays his reasoning and revelations to the audience. The two have been the subject of a number of short stories Jones has written, which have appeared in various magazines and anthologies over the last decade and which have now been collected in an e-book titled The Waters of Eternity—highly recommended if you read The Desert of Souls and want a further fix of Dabir & Asim goodness. Although The Desert of Souls is the most recently-published story to feature this great duo, chronologically it’s one of their first adventures together, so this makes a great introduction to the pair and their world.
And then there are the gender issues, which don’t beat the reader over the head in a modern political sense, but still provoke thought. For all its opulence and relative scientific modernity, eighth-century Baghdad was still a seriously patriarchal society, and the trials and tribulation poor Sabirah goes through simply for wanting to develop her mind are portrayed with a clear and unsentimental eye. The attitudes of the characters towards the issues surrounding Sabirah and her situation are believable and not anachronistic, but still raise interesting questions for the modern-day reader to contemplate.
All in all, The Desert of Souls offers an exciting plot in a fascinating and well-drawn historical setting, with fun characters facing real physical, magical, and even societal dangers. Never boring, this novel is a classic, pulpy adventure yarn with a modern storytelling sensibility. It will transport you to another world and thrill you while you’re there. A definite escapist win.