HOWARD ANDREW JONES – The Desert of Souls. Thomas Dunne Books, hardcover. February 2011. St. Martin’s, trade paperback, January 2012.
Arabian nights and swords and sorcery may not be the usual fodder for this site, but when they are also a detective story and thriller along Conan Doyle lines, then something new is going on.
If it were possible to modify the word unique in the English language, this one would be “uniquer.”
The time is the eighth century. The place Baghdad, the Baghdad of legend and myth under the wise rule of the most famous of the fabled cities leaders, Haroun al Rashid, the caliph of the Arabian nights, Ali Baba, Sinbad, Scherezade, the Old Man of the Mountain, the Hashishin, and wine drinking poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam. It is also the ancient Persia of cruel and unpredictable djinn, sorcery, mythical creatures, and imagination.
This really should not work on any level, but Jones proves a clever storyteller and puts us in the hands of a swashbuckling Watson, in the able Captain Asim — more Archie Goodwin than Watson in most aspects — who keeps the reader grounded like all good Watson’s should, as Hamil the poet tells him: “A good storyteller tailors his story to his audience.”
And if there is a Watson that means there is a Holmes, in this case the scholar Dagbir, who has a bad habit of speaking truth to power. As might be expected we first meet him in relation to a murder: The case of the murdered parrot.
Pago belongs to Asim’s master Jaffar, the grand vizier (another actual historical figure), and Azim calls upon Dagbir to help distract the distraught Jaffar with a incognito journey into the city. Well disguised Jaffar, Asim, and Dagbir set out of their adventure and visit a seeress in the poorest part of town where they are told Dagbir will be famed as a slayer of monsters, Asim for his tales of Dagbir’s adventures, and Jaffar will lose his head to a woman to high for his station — literally lose his head.
Leaving the seeress, a bleeding man stumbles into their arms followed by his pursuers which they quickly dispatch, leading to a jeweled tablet that holds the secret of the Atlantis of the sands, the lost city of Ubar.
Before they can get far though, the tablet is stolen by a Greek spy and Firouz, a fire wizard, and Jaffar dismisses Dagbir assuming that the seeress confused him with the scholar who has been privately treating Jaffar’s neice, Sabirah, who is none to happy with Asim who she blames for Dagbir’s dismissal.
And we are off for high adventure, low intrigue, and some good detection though this is hardly a detective story, what with djinn and giant talkative feather serpents who guard the secrets of the sands. At stake are not only the lives of Asim, Dagbir, and Dagbir’s love Sabirah, the niece of Jaffar and forbidden to the scholar, but the soul of Baghdad itself, the target of Firouz madness.
Howard Andrew Jones is a leading expert on Harold Lamb (having edited two volumes of Lamb’s Arabian tales, Swords from the West and Swords of the Desert), whose tales, along with Robert E. Howard, and Talbot Mundy inspired this tale, but Jones wisely chooses a modern voice for his narrator eschewing any labored thee’s, thou’s, and thy’s for a crisp fast moving narrative with a capable and fast thinking narrator who just doesn’t happen to be as clever as Dagbir, but who is an amiable hero on his own, and adds a touch of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes to the mix.
The result is a clever mix of sword and sorcery staples, historical fiction in the Lamb and Howard style, modern thriller, and an unusual Sherlockian adventure. This is one of those remarkably good-natured books that a few pages in you find yourself wanting to give the benefit of the doubt and simply enjoy.
I’m reminded of Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody books or Will Thomas historical thrillers in that you just want to relax and enjoy the ride without thinking about it. Books that entertain on that level are too far between these days — I suppose they always were.
“Cleave close to your friend,” a seeress tells Asim at the end, “He will need you and the world will have need of you both.”
I certainly hope so. This doesn’t just bend the genres it apes, it ties them in knots and creates something new and original. It’s a flying carpet ride of a novel in glorious Technicolor.