Though the trappings of Chelsea Abdullah’s debut novel The Stardust Thief will be familiar to readers who grew up on some of the most popular retellings of One Thousand and One Nights, this debut novel launches an entirely new, deep world with the first lines. “Neither here nor there, but long ago…” begins not just the novel, but each of the tales within, weaving a tapestry of magic and adventure.
The Stardust Thief is the first of a planned trilogy, the tale of Loulie al-Nazari, the Midnight Merchant; her enigmatic jinn companion, Qadir; tragedy-haunted jinn hunter Aisha; and a pair of princes: Omar, the king of the forty thieves and eldest prince, and Mazen, a cloistered younger prince trapped by his royalty, who misses his mother’s stories. Loulie and Qadir find and sell relics, making her a legendary merchant in the black market, as buying and selling magic is strictly forbidden by the sultan.
But while Loulie thinks of herself as a pragmatic, practical woman who has avoided forming attachments (for fear of losing those she loves), she also has a tender heart. When she sees Mazen, disguised as a commoner and following a jinn through the marketplace, she realizes he’s enchanted and goes after them. While Loulie doesn’t think jinn are evil—unlike the rest of the citizenry—she doesn’t want harm to come to an innocent human.
But Mazen and Loulie’s encounter is part of a much larger plot, unraveled bit by bit throughout the book, until readers can trace it to its source. When Loulie is sent by the sultan on a mission for a relic within the treacherous Sandsea, her fate and Mazen’s become more deeply intertwined. Jinn kings, necromancers, discarded thieves, and relic hunters are seeded through their adventures. And always, there is a story, and within it, hints of a larger truth hidden from the world.
Abdullah uses Loulie, Mazen, and Aisha as the story’s three point of view characters. All of them have secrets—and each lie to hide them. Loulie, as the Midnight Merchant, is secretive about her history. She must also hide the identity of her bodyguard, for if anyone knew she traveled with a jinn, they’d try to kill him, and she’d likely be executed by the sultan as well. Mazen’s initial disguise, dressing as a commoner, is replaced by an even more devious one: High Prince Omar gives Mazen a relic that changes Mazen into Omar’s body double.
It is in Omar’s form that Mazen undergoes a quest with Loulie at the sultan’s command, with only Aisha knowing the truth of his identity. Aisha, a thief and a jinn hunter under Omar’s command, follows the secret orders given to her by the High Prince, accompanying Mazen as his bodyguard. No matter how grudgingly she took her initial assignment, she grows fond of Mazen—but her loyalty to Omar defines her, and her closeness with her companions never tempts her to spill her secrets.
The three point of view characters aren’t the only ones with lies and secrets, which is what makes reading the novel such a delight. While readers are able to see through the lies of each character, the limitations of their own knowledge means readers are still likely to be surprised by the novel’s many twists and turns—and reveals—that come throughout the story. Because the three are human, they only know the human tales of the jinn. No matter how well those tales are told, they have limitations. (Mazen, the son of the late queen Shafia, whom readers will recognize as Scheherazade, knows a full repertoire of stories, and the text is interrupted with tales laid out on a parchment background, giving further insight to the situation of the characters—but hiding the truth within decorative embellishments.)
This mix of familiar tropes and characters from folklore with an invented world, where spilled jinn blood sprouts greens within the desert, makes for an unpredictable narrative. Because the point of view characters lack understanding of the jinn, when those jinn do something unexpected, or when magic turns the course of the tale, the results feel fresh and new. And despite their different worldviews and opinions of those same jinn, each of the point of view characters earns the sympathy of the readers. Even when they’re at odds, it’s hard not to root for each of them to triumph.
It’s hard to believe that Abdullah, an American-Kuwaiti writer who grew up on some of the traditional tales she embellishes, is a debut writer. The prose is polished, the world rich with depth, and the characterizations endearing. With lies and secrets, she lulls her readers in with a story that feels familiar, simultaneously crafting a tale that undermines expectations. The finale changes the stakes for the series to come, and while it’s not quite a cliffhanger, the last pages are told almost breathlessly. The wait for the second book will be long, with no publication date yet announced, leaving readers to imagine an endless desert filled with ruins and danger—and jinn.
The Stardust Thief is available now.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories and role playing game supplements, and edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including APEX: World of Dinosaurs and Bridge to Elsewhere. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.