The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah
The Stardust Thief (2022), by Chelsea Abdullah, is one of the more impressive debut novels I’ve read lately, offering up a bevy of strong narrative elements with barely a weakness to be found and using a well-known tale (1001 Nights) not as a basis for a retelling but as the germ of something that is its own lushly original story. It wasn’t until I neared the end that I had the happy realization this wasn’t a stand-alone novel but would give me two more chances to spend time in this world.
As a child, Loulie (AKA the Midnight Merchant) was the sole survivor when her tribe was massacred, rescued from the desert by Qadir, who now serves as her bodyguard as she plies her trade of finding and selling magical jinn relics. Her unique success in that area has caught the attention of the Sultan of Madinne (famed for killing a number of his wives years ago), who seeks perhaps the greatest of all jinn relics.
With no real option, Loulie agrees to go on the quest into the most mysterious area of the great Sandsea, accompanied by Qadir, Prince Omar (the Sultan’s cruel son and leader of the genocidal 40 Thieves who hunt down and kill any and all jinn), and Aisha, Omar’s most trusted, deadly, and effective of the Thieves.
Or at least, that’s the group as it seems. In reality, for mysterious reasons of his own, Omar forces his more innocent younger brother, a lover of stories more than swords, to take his place, ensorcelled so as to look like Omar. In the attempt to fulfill the quest, members face a series of potentially fatal encounters even as within the group secrets are revealed and members ally with and turn on each other.
As mentioned, the novel’s strengths are numerous. The four main characters are richly drawn. Each is interesting from our very first introduction to them, but even better is the way that as more facets (some purposely hidden) are revealed, and as the events of the plot affect them, each deepens as a character, becoming even more compelling and raising the stakes of what happens to them. It’s fascinating to watch each struggle with how newfound knowledge of not just their compatriots but themselves might change their viewpoints/actions.
Secondary characters are less fully fleshed out or interesting, but given how little time we spend with them, that’s a minor quibble.
The setting is lushly described, with two original aspects particularly enhancing the story. One I’m not going to describe so as not to spoil an important revelation. The other is made clear early on and involves the way jinn’s silver blood is used to bring life to the desert (it also has healing qualities). This lends a horrific and haunting element to the story throughout, as when Prince Mazen looks out over a palace courtyard:
The courtyard seemed to glow, the white roses sparking beneath the moonlight. Like jinn blood, he thought dully. Ut of course the courtyard would sparkle like jinn blood; it had sprung from it … How many jinn had been bled out on that once-barren soil so that they could live this life of luxury?
A sentiment shared by Loulie when she looks upon the same scene at a different moment: “Loulie felt ill as she gazed upon the unnatural white roses and the trees heavy with fruit, knowing they had been born of jinn blood … How many jinn were killed to make this immortal garden?”
Besides the emotional impact of this worldbuilding detail, it’s also difficult (or was for me) not to read this as a metaphor for societies built on the blood of indigenous and/or enslaved peoples, and I greatly appreciated the greater depth such a reading lent to the novel.
As one might expect of a novel using 1001 Nights as a seed, storytelling plays a major role. Structurally, the plot’s typical style is interrupted by interstitial chapters that are presented as more formal storytelling, such as “The Tale of the Jinn”, “The Tale of Amir and the Lamp”, and “The Tale of the Queen of Dunes.” (the last herself a richly complex character). These do a nice job of breaking up or balancing out the faster-paced adventure moments in the novel, heighten the sense of myth and magic, add variety to the style/voice, and act as a nice contrast — the more ethereal and almost stately fantastical versus the more mundane (if still at times supernatural) and gritty reality of the characters.
The plot, meanwhile, is nicely paced, balanced as noted between the usual fight scenes, tense moments, and more introspective or passive scenes. If some of the plot’s broader moves and end points can be anticipated, how we arrive at those end points is often less predictable. That especially holds true for the final climax and the jumping off point for book two.
The Stardust Thief is one of the most enjoyable and captivating books I’ve read in the past few months, and my appreciation of its characters and storyline, as well as the author’s skill, only increased the farther I read. It’s been a while since I’ve so eagerly awaited a sequel. Highly recommended.