Friday 19 July 2013

Book Review: Desert of Souls

Cover by Charles Keegan
Desert of Souls, by Howard Andrew Jones, came out early in 2012 and I've been waiting, mostly based on a review on the now-defunct Grognardia blog, for a UK release.

Well, that still hasn't happened and maybe never will, so I got a copy of the US edition. I'm guessing that sales haven't been great as my copy is a first printing of the first edition, despite being ordered about 18 months after release.

"Never judge a book by its cover", they say, but in this case it's hard not to. Firstly, the front cover illustration is great. Secondly, it's a US fantasy hardback and these have always been a bit exotic and weird. I remember as a youth seeing the US editions of the Thomas Covenant books for the first time and being a bit shocked to see rather gaudy close-up scenes of characters from the text in place of the grandeur of Peter Goodfellows triptych panorama of The Land as seen from the far west.

I've noticed that US covers generally have a much stronger tendency to show figures than British editions and, although the impressionistic effect here means that it isn't an issue, I feel it often leaves the artist as a hostage to fate should it prove that the reader doesn't interpret the characters the same way.

All that aside, the other thing that US publishers do is that they put reviews on their books. Not one or two, as UK editions do, but as many as they can physically squeeze onto the cover, often continuing inside. Desert of Souls is no exception and is festooned with blurbs and endorsements from front to back to inside jacket-fly. One even comes from Monte Cook ("Author of The Dungeon Master's Guide, 3rd Edition" it says here) and the D&D feeling in the book is indeed strong.

If these blurbs are to be believed, the book is a debut novel from a writer who is practically the new Robert E. Howard (mentioned twice) with even a touch of Omar Khayyam. I can only assume that E. E. Knight ("author of the bestselling Vampire Earth Series") has never actually encountered any of Omar Khayyam's writing while sober.

So, clich├ęd advice about books and covers notwithstanding, it's hard not to open this slim volume without a feeling of anticipation - pausing only to note that word: "slim".

Bizarrely, when I first thought about ordering the book about a year ago from Amazon (a company I normally avoid, and in fact did) the description said that DoS was 500 pages. When I actually did order it from, the text there said 400 pages. In fact, it's 300 pages in a not particularly small font.

So, it wasn't the epic I was expecting - having missed the correct page count in the Grognardia review. In the end it even felt a bit stretched at 300 pages.

"I still have the deerstalker on underneath, Waton"
The book itself concerns the adventures of a semi-sortof-partial-Sherlock Holmes figure called Dabir ibn Khalil and his companion Asim who, like Watson, provides both a touch of military force and the first person view point of the narrative. So, like the Holmes stories and Big Trouble in Little China, we see the action from the viewpoint of someone other than the main character, which I generally like as a device.

The story has undertones of a satire of, or at least comment on, The War on Terror™, although given just how often history repeats itself that may just be my reading of it. The main baddie is a wizard, a Zoroastrian magi, who's family was killed as collateral damage from the Caliphate's putting down of a rebellion near Mosal. The modern resonance is heightened by the fact that the characters start in Baghdad and travel down to Basra and back again in the course of the adventure. Of course, it's hard to write about the period in question without mentioning places which are heavy with premonitions for the modern reader, so perhaps I'm seeing things when I read "drone-attack gone wrong" instead of "troops that went beyond their orders" as the cause of Firouz the magi's vengeance.

The adventure proper is kicked off when Firouz obtains a pair of door-pulls which legend says were attached to a doorway in a long lost city in the empty quarter of what is now the Saudi Peninsula. This doorway was into a room built around a sort of node to the land of Djinn and the door pulls allow entry to the node.

The thing is, though, that the city in question was destroyed by Allah and its soul was cursed. His plan is to go to the lost city (which, obviously, he has found), build a new pair of doors and, via a magical relationship with time, steal the cursed soul of the ancient city and swap it with the soul of Baghdad.

There is a resonance of this in the book's larger mystic theme whereby souls are presented as the currency of the supernatural world - human sacrifice is essentially the process of paying some other-worldly beast for its service.

Religion, eh?
Anyhow, Dabir gives chase, alternatively helped and hampered by Asim's slightly clueless company and the under-developed romantic interest of Sabirah, an 18 year old genius unfortunate enough to be born into a woman's body in 8th century Arabia and who is chafing at being used as coinage in the political marriage exchange.

When Dabir and co. find themselves on the wrong side of the doors after they are closed and the pulls removed, they discover themselves in the titular Desert of Souls. There they encounter a strange beast that is collecting souls to power a Telumelesque device it needs to restore it to its homeland.

I'll not go into the rest of the plot, but it's no shock that Dabir wins out in the end. The key question is whether the journey to that point is worth the while.

The Critical Bit
The answer to that question is: more or less. The whole book reads like a D&D adventure written down after the event by someone who's main aim is to record the sessions and not embellish it beyond what "actually" happened. There are no sub-plots to speak of. Firouz has a necromancer side-kick from Byzantium and there's a suggestion of political tension there, and Sabirah clearly wants to find an alternative life or role from the one dealt to her, but in fact neither of these proto-plots come to anything at all. Even the Desert of Souls itself is underdeveloped, being basically the setting for a single, reasonably interesting, encounter.

The characterization of the two central characters is pretty well developed, I think, but the peripheral characters seem sketched in. One point that stood out here is that Firouz said to have gone from being a good, kind man to one filled with rage and hate because his wife and friends were killed. Yet one of his first major acts of magic in the story results in the death of his father without producing any apparent emotional impact on Firouz at all.

I get that there is a message being pitched that revenge often turns a person into the very thing that they hate, but this jarred at the time and moreso in retrospect.

At the same time, Firouz's reluctance to kill Dabir and Asim each time he has the chance (and he has many chances) gets a bit wearisome too and the excuse that he and Dabir were once friends only goes so far when Firouz has a partner in crime with no such history or qualms.

Another characterization issue is that much of the dialogue feels too modern and American; there is at least one very casual use of the name of the prophet Mohammad which I didn't think seemed right for a believer and a haggling scene that ends with one character announcing "Done!" in a way that made the Arabian setting suddenly feel like it was a another sketch waiting for the artist to get the oils out and really set to work.

Similarly, there is a laziness about the way in which Dabir's master, Jaffar, simply brushes aside any possibility of the supernatural even when he has witnessed it, passing it off as the effects of drugs. This seemed strangely hyper-rational for the setting and only included to produce a required degree of frustration in the reader and the other characters. When he is confronted with indisputable evidence of the existence of magic toward the end of the book, when a sense of frustration is no longer needed, Jaffar seemingly has no difficulty adjusting to an entirely new world-view and I don't think he even mentions it afterwards.

It's perhaps worth noting that Jaffar (a relatively minor character beyond the first couple of chapters) and his master, the caliph Haroun al-Rashid, are both real people as well as being characters in 1001 Nights. This makes Jones's otherwise irritating use of foreshadowing in relation to them more acceptable as many readers (although not this one) would already know what fate had in store for them.

Take your pick
The other place where reality intrudes is with the girl, Sabirah. I can understand the desire to have a romantic entanglement, and even a doomed one. But her position in society is so low and so completely set in stone from the moment that we first meet her that it really just doesn't have anywhere to go. Ironically, she ends up being a MacGuffin handed around the real players in the plot in order to motivate them rather than a character in her own right. It's realistic but depressing and another example of an idea that sprouts but never flowers in a book that promises a perfumed garden on the cover but delivers a neat box-hedge inside.

The D&D Angle
There is a strong feeling of D&D about the characters, magic, and setting (someone even jams a door by hammering iron spikes under it) and in the afterward Jones also recommends GURPS Arabian Nights and ICE's supplement of the same name as casual introductions to the setting. Clearly the man is a role-player. The question is whether he is a story-teller.

Game sessions which are great stories for the participants can often be very linear for those where were not there and that is the very strong feeling I get from DoS: a reasonable re-telling of an adventure run by a slightly over-generous DM and then committed more or less verbatim to paper. "We were here and this happened, so we went there and this happened but then we were surprised by this so then we had to go there."

One reason role-playing in da old-skool style works so well is that the players have a feeling of the events happening rather than being directed and this makes up for a certain shallowness to the player's viewpoint - there is no real chance to see events from another angle while one is embedded into the developing story. When transposing an account to a book, or trying to capture the feeling of a role-playing adventure, an author has to thicken the broth as it were. Either the sense of being there needs amplified or the plot has to be expanded in some way.

Robert E. Howard (also mentioned in the author's afterword as an inspiration) could put the reader into a place as if it were their own memory instead of words on a page. Jones is nowhere near that level yet, unfortunately, and only the early chapters in the palace have any major sense of place.

If I were to suggest any one thing that would have improved this book it would be to either shave 50 pages off or add another 50; either skip one round of "but then they escaped" to keep the pace up, or give some extra time to the setting or to a third party which complicates the two-horse race to the Desert of Souls.

The magic d8 of criticism rolls a 5 - get it as a disposable e-book; you'll probably not have a burning desire to re-read it.

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