“To him, stories were truths painted over in gold.”
“The Sandsea is a rip in the world, made from a fire so fierce it has never stopped burning. That kind of magic – you must stay away from it. Do you understand, Sweet Fire?”
Most of us are familiar with the classic One Thousand and One Arabian Nights – or at least familiar with the concept and some of the stories that make up this collection of Persian and Arabian folktales. The collection is framed through the voice of the fictional Scheherazade, a woman who survives death night after night by telling a story to the sultan. Chelsea Abdullah’s The Stardust Thief (Orbit Books, 2022) uses that collection as the framework for her beautifully rendered and intensely captivating fantasy that is the first of a trilogy.
Scheherazade is Shafia in the novel. The sultan has never fully recovered from her murder. Her son, Mazen, with stars in his eyes and stories on his lips, is easily the sultan’s favorite child. As such, he is kept confined, almost as a prisoner, within the palace walls. But there’s a wanderlust that has him donning commoner’s clothes and sneaking out, hungry for stories that feed his soul. Through a series of unexpected (and unknowingly orchestrated) events, Mazen finds himself on the biggest adventure of his life with Loulie, the enigmatic Midnight Merchant, Qadir, her stoic and equally mysterious bodyguard, and Aisha, one of his brother’s jinn-killing forty thieves. The four are on a quest to find the lamp that contains a powerful jinn.
Loulie is a relic hunter who is led to relics with the help of Qadir, a jinn, and an enchanted compass. Loulie is the best, and even though dealing in magical items is strictly forbidden, the sultan has her captured not to be punished, but to serve him. This may prove a fate worse than punishment. She’s ordered to find a most prized relic – the lamp lost to the Sandsea. The sultan sends his son to ensure Loulie does as instructed. Qadir, in human form, is never far from her side. No one save Loulie knows he’s a jinn; they’d kill him on sight if they did.
Aisha is devoted to Prince Omar, and prides herself on being one of his forty thieves. When Omar concocts a plan to deceive his father by having Mazen join the Merchant in his place, Aisha begrudgingly agrees to keep watch on the weak and younger brother. Thanks to a little jinn magic, only Aisha and Mazen know that the prince isn’t Omar.
As the small band of adventurers travel over a dangerous land of sand and magic, they find themselves the heroes and sometimes villains in the stories Mazen so loves. While I do wish there’d been more with Loulie and Ahmed, this was a solid debut that has set the scene for the The Ashfire King, which is set for publication in fall of 2023. Book two will undoubtedly bring us more magic, more jinn stories, and hopefully a bit more Hakim.
Read this book.