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The Stardust Thief coverThe Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah, the first in the Sandsea Trilogy, is a beautiful and compelling fantasy debut. Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights, and infused with a love of stories, storytelling, and myths, The Stardust Thief takes the reader on a thrilling adventure. Told from multiple points of view—Mazen, Loulie, Aisha—and with many story interludes, The Stardust Thief is full of layered and lovable characters, an interesting plot with many unexpected twists, and a beautifully rendered Arab-inspired world.

The novel follows a sheltered prince, a smuggler of illegal magical artifacts who’s known as the Midnight Merchant, and a jinn-killer thief (Mazen, Loulie, and Aisha respectively) as they seek a legendary lamp and the jinn found within it. There are identity shenanigans, with characters impersonating others, concealing their identities or pasts, and all other manner of mischief, trickery, and even betrayal; intriguing characters such as Mazen’s brother Omar whose motives are uncertain; and loyal friends, such as Qadir, with hidden secrets.

I absolutely loved this book, and I await the sequel with bated breath. However, the beginning is rather slow, and does not showcase the depth of character and worldbuilding that will be present later on. In fact, if I hadn’t been reading this book for the purposes of reviewing it, I might have put it aside, kept it for some later time. By the fifth or sixth chapter, however, Abdullah’s talents shine fully; give yourself time to fully sink into this book.

First of all, the prose is beautiful and lyrical. The descriptions of each environment bring the markets, the desert, the palace, and the city to life. Evoking all five senses, Abdullah paints vivid scenes with poignant narration. The settings, narration, and dialogue are all deliberate, captivating, and poetic while still being straightforward:

She drew closer to the ship’s railings. Even through an orange veil of sand, the sun was bright enough she could make out the tiers of the great desert city of Madinne. At the top was the sultan’s palace, made up of beautiful white domed towers and minarets that reached for the sun. It was surrounded on all sides by colorful buildings—stone and wooden constructions both domed and flat, tall and squat. And somewhere in the midst of those buildings, nestled in a nexus of crooked, winding alleyways, was home. Their home.

The register also changes from the main story to the interludes (the stories-within-the-story), adding to the richness of the prose but also to the book’s themes of myths and storytelling. Most importantly, the author achieves this in a way that never gets in the way of the characters’ emotions or the plot.

Moreover, Abdullah has a clever and witty way of writing sentences: “‘A thief steals lives. They do not have their life stolen from them,’” we read, and, “He was struck with the peculiar feeling that he was riding into the past rather than the future; there was that same sunset painting the distant dunes a golden red, and there was the dust that glittered faintly in the air, carried on a gentle breeze,” or finally, “She did not believe in mourning the past. But the present—that was something she could change for the better with her blade.”

Secondly, The Stardust Thief is unapologetically Arab. From the times of the day, to the clothes people wear, to the architecture, to the Bedouin people, to even the food, the book is absolutely drenched in authenticity and character. Coming across terms that I knew never failed to give me a thrill, and even the words I didn’t quite know still made me smile. It is a sense of homecoming, the same kind I got from reading Hafsah Faizal’s Sands of Arawiya duology (2020-21) or Somaiya Daud’s Mirage duology (2018-20). Seeing this sort of representation is always appreciated, both for those who see themselves in the world and the characters, but also for others who are able to explore different cultures. Furthermore, Abdullah truly uses the setting and the inspiration from One Thousand and One Nights to the fullest, enriching the plot and the characters and the world she’s created.

For example, I greatly appreciated how Abdullah took inspiration from many of the tales from One Thousand and One Nights and made them her own, from the stories about jinn to Scheherazade (named Shafia in this story). As someone who loves fairytale retellings, and retellings in general, its relationship with stories and retellings is one of the book’s many strengths: every reference or twist to a familiar tale is cleverly done and elevates the plot—the Forty Thieves being jinn-hunters led first by the sultan, and then Omar, for example, or Scheherazade being Mazen’s mother and passing down her gift and love of storytelling to him. This approach also tied into the format of stories within stories, which added both important information and believability regarding the worldbuilding. The focus on retellings also influences the current plot and characters, while also feeding into one of the book’s important themes—how people interpret stories, rightly or wrongly, and how truths can be twisted.

Additionally, the magic of Abdullah’s world, which it of course in part inherits from the world of One Thousand and One Nights—those jinn artifacts and the truth behind them, the jinn themselves, the ghouls and other creatures—is equally fascinating and well-written. Abdullah really draws upon all sorts of mythological creatures, presenting them in new and interesting ways. Throughout the book, our characters are continually faced with magic and jinn and creatures, acting as obstacles—such as the ghouls, or Mazen’s new shadow, or relics that manipulate the mind—but also serving to deepen this world for the reader.

Because of how Abdullah uses all these stories and worldbuilding, the reader is treated to ethical dilemmas and layered, complex characters. The themes surrounding the jinn, whose blood can literally create life, allow for a situation where all sorts of characters with competing and understandable motivations give different perspectives—those who hate the jinn because of their murdered families or who are jinn-hunters because they want to protect humanity, the various jinn presented in the book, those who view the murder of jinn as reprehensible … There are often no easy answers, and the characters themselves have conflicting emotions on the situation: the jinn are monsters who kill entire families; but they are also beings trying to stay alive and pursuing revenge for wrongs committed against them. The humans are often complicit in genocide, and there was an aspect of Loulie’s identity as the Midnight Merchant that I found thought-provoking and a great example of the nuance found within The Stardust Thief.

The characters themselves are great: lovable, with flaws and goals and distinct personalities. Coming from all walks of life—a (former) Bedouin, a prince, a thief and a jinn-killer bound by the fact that jinn had killed at least one member of their family. The book explores their griefs and hopes, exploring how that can change or warp or influence a person. Abdullah is also masterful in creating the complex relationships these characters have with each other, from Mazen, Loulie, Qadir, and Aisha on their quest, to Mazen with his brothers, father, and mother, Loulie and Qadir, Aisha and Omar—they all feel rich and realistic, portraying friendship or contentiousness or guilt or responsibility … It all reads as genuine. There is also an undercurrent of found family, which is always appreciated when it has the backstory, and depth of affection and support present for example in Loulie and Qadir’s relationship.

Additionally, each character goes through great development, growing over the course of the book. They overcome their fears, gain greater understanding, question the truths they hold as sacred, and come to believe in themselves and others just a little bit more. I found Loulie and Mazen’s journeys especially compelling. Each POV character has an understandable goal and motivation, which sometimes puts them at odds with another character; Adullah executes especially well those moments when characters are opposed and the reader feels that it is almost impossible to pick a side. This also plays marvelously into the book’s other themes of identity, names, and secrets: characters keep secrets from each other throughout the course of the novel, oftentimes creating problems when hiding these secrets, or causing tension when those secrets are revealed. The suspense of watching this all unfold kept me on tenterhooks throughout.

Indeed, the only aspect of this novel that I disliked—apart from that slow and somewhat uninspiring beginning—was Mazen’s identity as a “cowardly prince.” Despite it being referenced in the cover’s blurb, and in the text itself several times, it never made much sense. Perhaps it is simply my interpretation of this character, but nothing about Mazen screamed “cowardly.” Quite the opposite: he bravely faces several situations that he was not equipped to handle, defies his father (albeit secretly) from the beginning of the book, and keeps trying to help his friends and travelling companions. Perhaps the moniker is simply meant to refer to his fears, insecurities, and lack of fighting knowledge, but I found Mazen’s internal monologue calling himself a coward extremely tiring after a while. It also didn’t feel like a false truth the character has to dismantle, which I might have appreciated, narratively speaking; instead, it was simply very annoying to repeatedly read.

Nevertheless, the ending of The Stardust Thief was perfectly done, providing a kind of conclusion to some of the character’s emotional arcs, while leaving the door wide open for the next book. It created the perfect balance between feeling like an ending, in a way, and yet providing a climax that creates a cliffhanger which encourages the reader to seek out the next book. All in all, then, I truly loved The Stardust Thief. I loved its characters and their journeys, its worldbuilding, the way its author wove retellings of One Thousand and One Nights into the story, and the multiple perspectives and the ethical questions that constantly arose. With a thrilling adventure, a world brimming with Arab culture, identity shenanigans, magical artifacts, and jinn, readers are certain to find in this novel—and, perhaps, this whole series—both a very enjoyable, and a thoroughly thought-provoking, read.

Safia (she/her) is an editor, book reviewer, and aspiring writer of speculative fiction. She loves chonky books, redemption stories, tea, and ballet. She lives in Canada, and her work has appeared in The Mitre, Canada’s oldest student-run literary journal. You can find her blog here, and other important links here.

Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
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