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The Desert of Souls    by Howard A. Jones order for
Desert of Souls
by Howard A. Jones
Order:  USA  Can
St. Martin's, 2011 (2011)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I haven't read anything like Howard A. Jones' debut novel Desert of Souls, a sword and sorcery romp through 8th century Baghdad and Arabia, since my early years reading fantasy, when I devoured Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian books. But there's no barbarian in this engaging adventure. Instead we have two heroes, the devout and heroic Captain Asim el Abbas teamed with intelligent and analytic scholar/sleuth Dabir ibn Khalil.

Asim is Captain of the Guard in the household of the vizier's son, Quadi Jaffar, while Dabir tutors Jaffar's brilliant niece Sabirah (who wishes to continue her studies and to avoid a political marriage). Sensing that his master needs a diversion, Asim organizes an incognito jaunt to the market - he and Dabir accompany Jaffar, who seeks out a fortune teller. Of the threesome she prophesies that Dabir will be 'known far and wide as a slayer of monsters and protector of the caliphate'; that Asim (a natural storyteller) 'will take up the difficult weapons of pen and parchment'; and that Jaffar will lose his head when he dares to love a woman beyond his station.

Unfortunately Jaffar concludes that the old woman mixed up their fates and that his was actually intended for Dabir, who must be in love with Sabirah. As they mull it all over, they encounter a dying man carrying a splendid door pull, who warns of danger to the caliphate. When this door pull - and another from the caliph's treasure vaults - are stolen (with sorcery employed in the theft), Asim and Dabir undertake a mission to recover them (Sabirah stows away on their ship). It seems that the door pulls are from the doomed city of Ubar (destroyed by God), where they opened a way to the Desert of Souls, a land of the djinn.

The villain of the piece is sorcerer Firouz, once a Magian priest from Mosul, who blames the caliphate for the deaths of family and friends and is obsessed with vengeance. He and Dabir were once friends. There are attacks on water and on land. Sabirah is kidnapped and rescued. Someone close to Asim dies. With Bedouin help, Asim and Dabir follow Firouz and his associates into the Desert of Souls, where they must face the terrible Seeker of Truths to find a way back. They race against time to save Baghdad from annihilation. Along the way, Asim is forced to examine his loyalties and choose between his master and his friend.

Howard A. Jones does a splendid job in The Desert of Souls. His background is well researched and feels real; his characters are credible and likeable, and their adventure is both exciting and great fun. I'm sure we'll see more of Asim, Dabir and (I hope) Sabirah as well.

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