Content warnings: death, death of a loved one(s), violence, gore, murder, genocide
Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: One Thousand and One Nights retellings, jinn kings and a long trek
He gestured, and the campfire rose, twisting and stretching until it morphed into a marvelous landscape of shining minarets and domed buildings. “Let us speak of lies and truths, and of the story hidden between them.”
I wanted to love this book so bad. It was one of my most anticipated releases for 2022. An Arab-inspired fantasy world (by an Arab author!) and a party of four distinct characters journeying through the desert in search of ancient jinn magic? I was so ready for this to be my next 5-star read, but it was mostly just underwhelming. Maybe my high expectations were part of the problem.
The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah is told from three points of view. The first belongs to Loulie al-Nazari, the famous Midnight Merchant, known for the ‘relics’ (items enchanted with jinn magic) she hawks. Always with her is her jinn bodyguard and sort-of-stand-in-parent, the unflappable Qadir. The second comes in the form of the cowardly but curious Prince Mazen bin Malik, whose thirst for adventure outside of the palace that doubles as his cage often lands him in trouble. The third is that of Aisha bint Louas, one of the Forty Thieves with a vendetta against the jinn and the skills to make them regret crossing her. When the sultan forces Loulie and Qadir to embark on a quest for a magic lamp so that he may command its power to exterminate jinn forever, Mazen and Aisha find themselves roped into the endeavour. And so, their tale begins.
“I’m the Midnight Merchant. Relics don’t possess me; I possess them.”
My biggest issue was that The Stardust Thief read like a typical YA story. That’s not to say that there aren’t many amazing YA books out there, but this fell into the trappings of the not-so-amazing ones. This is most evident in the characters, whose actions and motivations are more reminiscent of teens than adults (this is an adult fantasy, and everyone is in their twenties or above). Lending itself to this is the dialogue, which is quite juvenile and very modern. It felt like I was reading dialogue from a contemporary story, which often jolted me out of the setting.
I also found everything to be . . . a little shallow. The characters, the plot, the worldbuilding – it is all decent enough to get you from the beginning to the end, but it never truly hooked me. I wasn’t in love with any of these characters. I never felt completely immersed in their world. The plot, plateaus and twists alike, never made my heart rate quicken. Part of the reason behind this was the writing style. Nobody wants prose flowery enough to give you hay fever through the page, but on the flip side, if it's too dry it’ll scrape against your mind like sandpaper. That was my experience here, and it dulled the magic in a world that is supposed to be very much magical.
Panic gave him the courage to swing the blade and the strength to drive it into the creature’s chest over and over again until it was a sinewy mess of gore and muscle. Mazen nudged the remains with a foot. When the corpse didn’t move, he smiled, laughed, and then promptly vomited his guts out in a corner of the room.
My favourite part of this book was the relationship between Loulie and Qadir. They have a strong, familial-like bond that endures when tested. Qadir can be a little stoic and shields himself behind a thick cloak of secrecy, but he quickly becomes the most compelling character. It was an added benefit that Abdullah didn’t try to force a romance between them or anyone else in the main group for that matter.
Another solid point in the book’s favour came from the interesting way Abdullah wove in different stories from One Thousand and One Nights. She adapted them so that they were consistent with the world she was building and even used them to enrich its history and magic system.
Some nights, when Aisha was alone, the desert spoke to her of death. She heard the distant cry of souls buried beneath the sand and the murmurs of relics lost to time.
I could definitely see all the base ingredients for an enticing read in The Stardust Thief, but I thought the execution was rather lacklustre. That being said, if you need an accessible fantasy or want to transition over from YA, this could be what you’re looking for. I jumped between 2.5 and 3 stars a lot while trying to decide on a rating. I’m still not completely sure, but I’ve settled on 3.