(thanks to NetGalley and Orbit for granting me an ARC of this book!)
Read if you like: found family, banter, adventure, betrayal, loyalty, hard choices, resurrection magic, elemental magic, ghouls, multicultural setting, desert setting, multiple POV, smooth pacing, storytelling as a theme, magical trinkets, merchantry, questing, daggers, cinnamon rolls, stoic bodyguards, well-kept secrets, character-driven narrative, imagination in spades
Triggers: murder, blood, death, implied torture, family loss, off-page parental neglect and abuse, violence, profanity
Neither here nor there, but long ago…
Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.
With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.
Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights, The Stardust Thief weaves the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp.
(Goodreads book profile here)
I read this book in one sitting.
For a fantasy book that rounds the 400 pages, that’s an incredible achievement on the author’s side.
This is also why the superb pacing absolutely made this book for me, and why I want to start off talking about that. Specifically, about how Abdullah’s mastery of tension across multiple POVs reminded me a lot of Stewart’s “The Bone Shard Daughter”, which I also read in one sitting. It’s a flex of a balance act to weave gradual tension into a secondary world narrative that spans across several personalities and multiple POVs, and Abdullah manages to do this with ease, hence why I read this book in literally one afternoon. Each chapter transition pulled me in so expertly.
In my opinion, balance is the keyword when it comes to creating the coveted “unputdownable” book—and Abdullah understands this, 100%.
The way that she creates tension also reminds me a lot of videogames. And I want to dwell on that for a bit. Firstly, the book is built around a quest narrative, meaning that the plot itself is reminiscent of many videogame plots. Secondly, there’s as much necessary exposition in this book as there is in any fantasy novel, yet Abdullah twists exposition into the plot in such a way that I felt like I was playing a videogame. One with various possible storylines splayed out in front of me, endlessly. I felt that anything and everything could happen, all the time, so I had to keep reading, you know? It felt like I kept leveling up, yeah?
This also applies to the worldbuilding. Specifically, the magic. The scope of the world and of the magic that governs the world constantly evolve on the page as the backstories of the characters are revealed and the history of the world is conveyed. It’s a bit like spoon-feeding. This means that we start out with a scope that feels narrow (but never lacking), and we end up with a scope that feels broad (but never overwhelming). Again, we have balance. On a knifepoint.
As for the theme of the book, Abdullah doesn’t beat around the bush.
This is a story about stories.
In particular, it’s about the way that stories empower those who take the time to listen to them.
It’s just like Mazen, our storyteller prince of the book, would say: “It’s in the details.”
Storytelling is how humans understand the world. How we understand power and the lack thereof. That’s what the “The Stardust Thief” is about. We have a group of people that become united by stories over the course of 400 pages. Their own stories. The stories of those they care about. Even the stories of the people that they don’t care about. There are no good or bad stories, Abdullah seems to tell us. And the power is not in the story itself, or even in the storyteller, but in the audience. That’s where stories have power; they empower.
A second theme that resonates strongly throughout the book is the theme that the dead are never truly gone. Rather, they live on in the stories we tell and the trinkets we keep. Abdullah takes this theme very literally, incorporating ghouls and thereby resurrections into the plot, but she also keeps it emotional. For starters, each character suffers from the loss of someone they loved. Additionally, we have Loulie, our business-savvy merchant, whose character arc and transformation in large part revolves around this same discovery; that the dead are never truly dead and that she must now change her way of life to account for this. How that comes to be and how she achieves that, I’ll let you read and find out (because it’s worth it, believe me, and enough that I initially spoiled it here out of sheer excitement).
Lastly, let me talk about voice.
As far as I am concerned, voice really boils down to the joy of storytelling. If the reader can feel that the writer truly enjoyed writing their book (even if it’s a sad book, yes), then the voice is there—and Abdullah has voice in spades. She has joy in spades. And it shows. And I personally can’t wait to see where her joy takes us next.