The Stardust Thief
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
I’m not really sure how I feel about this book. Nobody could accuse it of being boring, because it certainly isn’t, but it’s so action-packed and there’s so much information to absorb that very few details have stuck with me. To wit: I’m going to have to reread it – and, as usual, loop the audiobook until I get sick of it so I can figure out how all the names are pronounced – before I read the second book. The sheer volume of information packed into these pages would’ve been fine if I didn’t have focus problems, but, as it is, it’s more of a muddle than I would like.
The Stardust Thief is the first installment in the Sandsea Trilogy, named for the unforgiving ocean of sand at the heart of the story. The world of the Sandsea is inhabited by both humans and magical beings known as jinn. The blood of a jinn can heal, and it can also create life wherever it falls, with the result that current human cities were built around the oases springing from magical blood despite a pervasive fear of jinn. This is a fear that echoes through every level of society, and it is ruthlessly exploited by the ruling sultan, a cruel man best known for executing his wives. His murderous habits were briefly curtailed by his latest wife, Shafia, teller of the 1,001 stories that ultimately saved her life, but he later embarked upon a genocidal campaign after she was murdered by a jinn. His mission is largely carried out by his eldest son Omar, King of the Forty Thieves, who regularly hunts jinn and collects their personal relics. The sultan has two other sons, Hakim and Mazen, but they are artistic, kind, and usually kept in the palace under lock and key (literally in Hakim’s case, slightly more figuratively in Mazen’s).
Despite the rules that are supposed to keep him from venturing into the outside world, Mazen frequently escapes out his window to wander the marketplace in the surrounding city of Madinne. Here he spends as much time as he can listening to his favorite storyteller, and this is exactly what he is doing when he bumps into Loulie al-Nazari, a young woman who sells illegal relics on the black market. Having lost her entire family to unidentified bandits, Loulie now travels widely in search of illegal relics to sell on the black market, where she is known as the Midnight Merchant. She is accompanied by Qadir, the jinn who rescued her shortly after the massacre of her tribe, and secretly equipped with an enchanted compass, which leads her to hidden relics. This has given her a reputation for finding new relics as if by magic, which in turn leads to her capture by the sultan, who demands that she travel to the Sandsea to find a lost oil lamp supposedly containing a powerful jinn. As part of the deal, the sultan tells Loulie that Omar will accompany her into the Sandsea, but Omar has other plans, and he blackmails Mazen into switching places with him. With the help of an appearance-altering relic, Mazen goes on the journey in Omar’s stead, accompanied by Aisha bint Louas, a member of the forty thieves. Their quest takes them through sandstorms and haunted dunes as they are relentlessly hunted by ghouls, a jinn queen, and something far more sinister than both, which really goes to show that, ghouls notwithstanding, nothing is quite as nasty as a human being.
Undaunted by the monsters that stalk them, human or otherwise, the group eventually finds the lamp, which does indeed contain a vengeful jinn named Rijah (they/their). Rijah is one of the most powerful jinn in the world, also known as ifrits, but unwittingly threw their freedom away when they were outsmarted by Amir, the founding father of the royal family. Bound to unconditional obedience, they were enslaved for a while in Amir’s palace until he realized the danger of having an angry ifrit hanging around and ordered the lamp buried in the Sandsea to prevent anyone else from becoming corrupted by its power. Hundreds of years later, with the message thoroughly lost, Omar is able to command Rijah briefly but quickly loses control of them during the ensuing battle. Following orders from Qadir, who is revealed to be the king of the ifrits, Rijah takes Loulie and Mazen (somewhat ungraciously) to the hidden world of the jinn; meanwhile Aisha, who is partially possessed by an ifrit with necromantic powers, stays in the human world at the head of an army of undead soldiers. It’s not the most cheerful ending, but it is relatively hopeful: now everything begins.
Regardless of any muddle on my end, I am looking forward to reading more of this series because the female characters are kick-ass. I love Loulie and Aisha, and I love their attitudes towards Mazen, for whom they simply do not have time. I really got the sense that both women were absolutely exhausted with him before they even started. Mazen is a gentle-hearted storyteller first and an equally gentle-hearted prince second, which makes it especially hilarious that he is forcibly paired with a super intense woman who could kill him with her pinky. His relationship with Aisha has mega baby-sibling-who-always-has-to-be-protected energy, and it’s great. I’m not especially pleased with all the bad things that happen to Aisha because there were at least three times where I really thought she was done for, but I suppose it’s a function of her role as bodyguard. In any case, I’m glad she lived to see another book. It wasn’t always clear to me that she would. The story has left her in an interesting place, and, while I respect her desire to keep her soul separate from her unexpected passenger, I really hope she’ll start to explore more of the ifrit’s powers in the next book. I want them to be friends.
Equally badass is Loulie, who is funny, stubborn, and smart, despite her habit of deliberately leaping into danger. I love her relationship with Qadir, who acts as a sardonic older brother and – as Aisha does for Mazen – is constantly pulling her out of trouble. The only thing that gives me pause is that Loulie would have died several times over without Qadir’s intervention, and, though she fights to become independent, she never actually manages it. This is a thorn in her side through most of the book, to the point where I thought that Qadir’s seeming death was supposed to make her more self-reliant, even though I was also low-key expecting him to come back. I’m glad Qadir is alive, but I wish Loulie’s dependence on him had been resolved differently. He tells her he is equally dependent on her, but I don’t really see it, and that doesn’t address the primary issue, which is that she can’t seem to do anything without him. However, this is only the first book, and I’m sure this is an issue that will come up again later in the trilogy.
My other trouble is that some of the biggest “twists” were not surprising. I was not surprised when Omar turned out to be half jinn, or when he was revealed to be Shafia’s murderer, or when Qadir came back from the dead. The story wasn’t anywhere near as predictable as Girl, Serpent, Thorn, which seemed to telegraph its every move, but some of the reveals fell a little flat. I’m also having a hard time buying into the power of the jinn, because the humans seem to kill them with absurd ease. Even if the humans cheat and use iron to nullify jinn magic, I’m not sure how a human like the sultan managed to kill Omar’s ifrit mother. I mean, what, did he stab her with an iron stake while she was sleeping? If Qadir came back after getting skewered by a pit of iron spikes, why didn’t Aliyah come back too? Is this level of survival unique to Qadir as the ifrit king, or did the sultan just get really stupidly lucky? Aliyah was one of the most powerful jinn in existence, with a magic strong enough to protect her son during a full fucking melee through the relic she left behind, and yet the sultan seems to have snuffed her out like a candle. Make it make sense, because it doesn’t.
Additionally, though this is more of a nice-to-have, I wish there had been inline translations of the Arabic dialogue. Most of it – shukran, for instance – was obvious based on context, but there were at least one or two lines that were written completely in Arabic, and I have no idea what they were saying. (I’m also kicking myself for not marking those passages, because I want to plug them into Google Translate and now I can’t find them.) This absolutely did not interfere with my ability to follow the story, but I’m not really sure what it was supposed to add when it can be reasonably assumed that the characters are all speaking Arabic anyway. If they were speaking English with Arabic phrases thrown in, that would be one thing; but, since they’re not, the random Arabic insertions seem somewhat odd. Technically I could translate on the fly, but I don’t want to keep reaching for my phone while I’m reading. I spent the first several chapters constantly picking up my phone to look up the foods the characters were eating, and it was mildly irritating. And objectively, yes, this is 100% a me problem; if I were better informed on Arabic cuisine, I wouldn’t have needed to Google as many things as I did, so that may be a lesson for future reads. I don’t even know why I’m grumbling, because I welcome any excuse to try new foods.
With or without the translations, however, this book was still a very solid debut. I like the characters, the setting, the story; I even like Rijah, though I don’t really know them yet. So far they’re rude, ornery, and crazy full of themselves, which sounds like a recipe for a damn good time. I know I barely mentioned him above, but I also really love Hakim, and I want to see more of him. (There was a hot second where I was suspicious of him because he seems to have a near-photographic memory of the desert he hasn’t seen for probably about ten years, and if he does turn out to be a villain I’m going to be so very sad, but for the moment I’m hopeful.) There are a couple of things that I’m hoping will get better as the series progresses, but overall this was a great introduction to the world of the Sandsea, and I can’t wait to see where we land in The Ashfire King.