Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Arabian Nights Redux

I discovered this a few weeks before its release when I stumbled upon an interview with the author, Howard Andrew Jones on Tor.com.  Jones is the managing editor over at Black Gate, a site dedicated to heroic fiction.  After reading the interview, I instantly liked him.  I appreciated his respect for classical fantasy literature as well as his approach to writing.  But more importantly, he introduced me to Harold Lamb, a largely forgotten historical fiction writer who wrote stories for Adventure magazine from 1917 to 1936.  For me, it was like discovering a lost Star Wars film made between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  Lamb was a fantastic storyteller and thanks to Mr. Jones, his stories of Cossacks, Crusaders, Mongol hordes and Arab adventurers have been published in new collections by Bison Press.

Jones decided to try his hand at writing with an Arabian Nights-style historical fantasy set in eighth century Baghdad.  The Desert of Souls chronicles the exploits of Dabir and Asim.  Dabir is a scholar in the service of Jafar, Vizier to the Caliph of Baghdad.  Asim is Jafar's Captain of the Guard.  The story begins with death of Jafar's favorite parrot.  In order to cheer him up, Asim suggests an excursion into the city.   There, a dying stranger gives them a mysterious object.  This the catalyst for what is essentially a buddy adventure story featuring fortune tellers, beautiful maidens, sinister villains, undead monkeys, Djinn, swords and sorcerers.  All the pieces are there, but somehow, it just doesn't work.

The story moves quickly thanks to Jones's clear prose, which does a pretty good job of trying to capture the archaic diction of eighth century Islamic civilization.  It's clear Jones did his homework.  The descriptions of people, places, culture and institutions feel authentic.  Ultimately however, the story falls flat.  I can't really point to any one thing he does badly.  It just isn't compelling.  Perhaps the biggest issue is that the story itself doesn't feel authentic.  In fact, it reads like a Dungeons and Dragons adventure, moving from what seems like one contrived threat to another in a flat, by the numbers way.  Making it worse, are dozens of one-dimensional characters who you don't really care about.  Contributing to these deficiencies, it seems to me, is Jones's choice of a first person narrative.  This is very difficult to do well in historical fiction because the narrator must feel like a plausibly authentic historical character to the reader; someone who is literally plucked out of some past world to tell their tale.  The only time I've seen it work well is in Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead. Here, Asim just never feels real enough to be convincing.

Another problem is the overuse of magic. This may simply be an issue of preference, but the fantastic should be used sparingly in historical fantasy.  In my view, the more you feature the supernatural, the less historical, and thus, less real, and thus, less compelling it feels.  Historical fantasy author Stephen Lawhead is very good at subtly incorporating supernatural elements into his stories without losing the sense of reality.

It's too bad.  As a fan of historical fiction and historical fantasy, I wanted to like this book.  Hopefully, we'll see more if it, because I think it has the potential to appeal to a wide audience. Middle Eastern history and mythology in particular, has been an untapped resource for adventure stories since the days of Sinbad.  But thanks to writers like Jones, who just released a sequel (Bones of the Old Ones) and Saladin Ahmed (Throne of the Crescent Moon), the genre is finally getting exploited.  In a good way.

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