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The glittering tradition of sword-and-sorcery sweeps into the sands of ancient Arabia with the heart-stopping speed of a whirling dervish in this thrilling debut novel from new talent Howard Andrew Jones.

In 8th century Baghdad, a stranger pleads with the vizier to safeguard the bejeweled tablet he carries, but he is murdered before he can explain. Charged with solving the puzzle, the scholar Dabir soon realizes that the tablet may unlock secrets hidden within the lost city of Ubar, the Atlantis of the sands. When the tablet is stolen from his care, Dabir and Captain Asim are sent after it, and into a life and death chase through the ancient Middle East.

Stopping the thieves—a cunning Greek spy and a fire wizard of the Magi—requires a desperate journey into the desert, but first Dabir and Asim must find the lost ruins of Ubar and contend with a mythic, sorcerous being that has traded wisdom for the souls of men since the dawn of time. But against all these hazards there is one more that may be too great even for Dabir to overcome...

309 pages, Hardcover

First published February 4, 2011

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Howard Andrew Jones

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5 stars
245 (21%)
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485 (42%)
3 stars
308 (26%)
2 stars
81 (7%)
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30 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 211 reviews
Profile Image for carol..
1,575 reviews8,226 followers
April 22, 2011
Very enjoyable; had a hard time putting it down, even for dinner. It's told from the viewpoint of the faithful warrior, which is an interesting take in fantasy--lots of bards, scholars and loveable scoundrels narrating, but not many warriors. It's an interesting viewpoint, because often his interpretations and solutions are very straightforward and honest. He tends to think strategically only when it comes to protecting his young master or in a fight. He pairs with a scholar, Dabir, and they end up on a quest, hoping to thwart an evil magician and his henchmen. Sounds like the stuff bedtime stories are made of, and it works. I enjoyed the level of detail; while the author used 8th century Arabia in describing people, setting and customs, he took enough liberties to make the area his own. A magical tale, and I look forward to his next.
Didn't rate 5 stars just because I save that for my 'best' books, or 'need to own.'
Profile Image for Ranting Dragon.
404 reviews229 followers
June 29, 2011

It is 8th century Baghdad and, before he is killed, a stranger pleads with the Vizier to protect a strange and mysterious tablet. Dabir, the Vizier’s scholar, discovers that the tablet may lead to the lost city of Ubar, whose hidden gates house treasures beyond imagination. However, when the tablet is stolen by an evil Magi, it is up to Dabir and his loyal friend, Captain Asim of the Vizier’s household guard, to retrieve the tablet before it can be used to unleash a terrible fate upon all of Baghdad. Fresh, riveting and an absolute thrill, Howard Andrew Jones’ debut novel The Desert of Souls is nothing short of amazing.

Something for everyone
It’s been a while since I’ve seen any novels openly marketed as “sword and sorcery”. I may get in trouble for breaking down the genre any more than it is, but I feel there has been a significant decrease in them since the days of Conan and the like. However, if there were more sword and sorcery books like The Desert of Souls, I’d be all over them. Jones writes a tight, lean story with a little bit everything. Action, adventure, mystery, magic, romance, humor, mythology; this book has it all, and in just the right amount.

Best buddy cop movie ever
I found one of the greatest things about this book to be the relationship between Asim and Dabir. You have the grizzled warrior and the clever scholar, brains and brawn, coming together to get the job done and save their friends. While this could easily have had them always at odds, the two are actually good friends and work together instead of always bickering. Asim and Dabir belong in a buddy cop film from the eighties and I mean that in the best way possible: their friendship is pure, and no matter what happens, they always stick together. I really hope Jones has more of their adventures to write, because it’d be a shame not to explore their friendship further.

A tight narrative
Having just finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, which I was less than thrilled with, it was a pleasure to trade in his meandering, drawn-out style for Jones’ lean, tight plot in The Desert of Souls. Weighing in at just over 300 pages, The Desert of Souls is a fast-paced novel from start to finish. Many of us are used to the 800 page epics in the speculative fiction industry, and as much as I enjoy the longer books, those authors could learn a thing or two from Jones. No page is wasted, and everything moves at a quick clip. Even moments of quiet still move along at a great pace.

So why should you read this book?
If you’re tired of authors who waste time with too much exposition or too many tangents, or if you’re looking for a book full of wonderful characters, great relationships and a rip-roaring adventure, then The Desert of Souls is for you. A quick read, but I was hooked from start to finish. Here’s hoping Jones has more stories of Dabir and Asim coming; I’ll be waiting for them patiently.
Profile Image for Alissa.
629 reviews89 followers
March 4, 2018
3.5 stars. This is a pleasant and linear quest story set in the 8th century Abbasid caliphate.

I really liked the descriptions and the historical inspiration, but both storytelling and rhythm are average. The characters and the tale itself are nice, however there are no particular depths to the former or surprising twists to the latter. All in all the novel achieves a kind of balance, mainly thanks to Asim, the narrator, and I'm happy I've given it a try because the protagonists grew on me and their adventures are entertaining.
The main storyline is resolved and I want to read the second book of the duet.

It is hard to portray the lonely immensity of the place with any justice. The brown dunes roll to the horizon, rising sometimes for hundreds of feet, gentle on one side and precipitous upon the other. From the height of the greatest of them one can see far, and the monotony of the view both disheartens and inspires awe. There is nothing to be seen but the dunes, identical in their composition but infinitely variable in their shape, height, and sweep.
Profile Image for Julie Davis.
Author 4 books272 followers
May 17, 2020
Picked this up for rereading after coming off of a jag of reading weird fiction a la H.P. Lovecraft.

I'd forgotten just how much I love this book and this author's writing style and the characters he created. This is a desert island book just for the sheer fun and adventure of it.

Original review below.
The glittering tradition of sword-and-sorcery sweeps into the sands of ancient Arabia with the heart-stopping speed of a whirling dervish in this thrilling debut novel from new talent Howard Andrew Jones

In 8th century Baghdad, a stranger pleads with the vizier to safeguard the bejeweled tablet he carries, but he is murdered before he can explain. Charged with solving the puzzle, the scholar Dabir soon realizes that the tablet may unlock secrets hidden within the lost city of Ubar, the Atlantis of the sands. When the tablet is stolen from his care, Dabir and Captain Asim are sent after it, and into a life and death chase through the ancient Middle East.
This was an easy and exciting read and I finished it quickly, partially because I was flipping the pages so fast.

Asim and Dabir somewhat remind me of Number Ten Ox and Master Li from Barry Hughart's stories of a China that never was. Asim is not as dim as Number Ten Ox and Dabir is not as wise (or old) as Master Li, but it is a classic pairing of brawn and brains, which can lead to misunderstandings that are sometimes comic but which can endanger everything if both do not learn to trust one another. By the end of the book we are fond of both characters, as, indeed, they are of each other.

The adventure itself is multi-faceted and highly inventive, while still remaining true to form in what feels like a factually based universe. In fact, Jones has taken great care to keep the historical facts true to form with Jaffar and the caliph being based on the actual historical people. In this, he must have been highly influenced by the stories of Harold Lamb, several volumes of which he collected into anthologies before writing his own novel.

Room was clearly left for more adventures and I hope that Jones is at work on the next. I can't wait to see what Asim and Dabir must tangle with next.
Profile Image for Mike.
669 reviews40 followers
March 25, 2011
In 8th Century Baghdad the Captain of the Jaffar’s Royal Guard, Asim and the scholar Dabir are dispatched to uncover the mystery of a rune inscribed relic. The Desert of Souls by Black Gate editor Howard Andrew Jones is a fresh look at the sword and sorcery genre in a Arabic setting full of vibrant characters, dastardly villains, and strange landscapes. As Minsc said best: “Adventure, excitement, and steel on steel.” This is also Jones’ first novel and is perhaps one of the best debuts, likely the best debut, I’ve read since Ian Treglis’ Bitter Seeds last year. The Desert of Souls is, in a word, awesome. I don’t mean awesome in the colloquial sense that awesome has come to embody in recent years (though to be fair that applies as well). No, rather I mean that literally. The Desert of Souls does what the sword and sorcery (hell, any fantasy) story should: it inspires awe.

The adventure opens with a discussion about a dead parrot. A dead, possibly poisoned parrot. Not the most auspicious of openings for an adventure but Jones handles it deftly letting readers tag along in Asim’s head thus allowing for some humorous commentary on the disposition of said parrot. Thankfully this is not a novel about the mystery surrounding a parrot’s death (though I have to wonder if someone really did poison the parrot since the question is never answered). Rather, Jones uses the scene to segue into Asim’s suggestion that Jaffer venture out into the city undisguised more as a distraction than anything else. That the magical mystery that later ensues is in fact a diversion from a diversion is a thread that gets lost as the excitement of the adventure as our heroes plunge onward. That a writer can move from a dead parrot to a magical adventure involving a rogue Zaroastian Magician, alternate worlds, and ancient entities without really causing any eyebrow raising is perhaps the best indications that said writer is going to go far.

So moving beyond dead parrots the stoic and honorable Captain Asim and the well-educated and extremely resourceful Dabir set forth on the trail of a magical door pull facing the threat of a fire wielding magician, undead monkeys, and the complications of a forbidden romance with Jaffar’s niece. Gluing the whole story together, and often serving as an added complication for our heroes, is an unexpected prophecy from Baghdad fortune teller. The real glue is Jones’ adept use of the setting. While he admits in his afterward that historical liberties and outright inventions were taken Jones’ vision of an 8th century Arabian setting where magic is real is one that consistently rings true. From the darkened streets of Baghdad, to a trip down the river, to the ancient ruins of a long lost city Jones conveys a sense of magic to his realistic settings and, when it comes to the titular desert, a sense of reality to his magical ones.

I don’t want to spoil things too much but Asim and Dabir’s journey into the Desert is perhaps my favorite part of the novel and particularly their negotiation, conversation, and eventual confrontation with the entity that resides there are fresh in my mind. It is a scene that reveal much about the characters and the world they inhabit while at the same time exciting the imagination reader right be before thrilling them with some intense action. I really couldn’t ask for more in any single scene of a novel. Keep in mind The Desert of Souls is not like other modern fantasies. There is a decidedly old-school vibe here that hearkens back to the Howard, Lieber, Moore and the countless other sword and sorcery fantasists. At the same time there is a freshness here that is difficult to place. Yes, we’re on familiar ground but it familiar ground that feels exciting to explore once more. As I mentioned you’ll be hard pressed to find a debut as accomplished as The Desert of Souls. This is some top notch fantasy adventure fiction that will put a grin on your face. I want more. I had delayed this review (more than once) because well I didn’t really want to gush. See how well that worked!
Profile Image for David Hayden.
Author 24 books102 followers
March 21, 2011
The Desert of Souls is one part historical, one part fantasy, and two parts action adventure. The main characters, Asim and Dabir, are reminiscent of Fafrhd and Grey Mouser or Sherlock and Watson without being copies of either pair. They are distinctive and well-rounded. The Desert of Souls is, to some degree, an adventurous buddy tale in 8th Century Baghdad. With sorcery. What's not to like about that?

Howard Andrew Jones made good use of pulp storytelling techniques rarely seen today, employing them in a sophisticated, modern manner. The Desert of Souls is an eloquently written, fast-paced tale that, at its best, reminded me of The Adept's Gambit by Fritz Leiber. I enjoyed the supporting cast and the lush historical setting, as well as fantasy elements that don't often get the screen time they deserve. Mythic djinn and zombie monkeys are just a few of the many fun, pulp-fantasy elements the author throws in for our reading pleasure.

The Desert of Souls is sword-and-sorcery at its best, and a fun read that any fantasy fan will enjoy.
Profile Image for Jason Ray Carney.
Author 28 books52 followers
September 7, 2020
This is such a compelling sword and sorcery novel. I first read Jones' sword and sorcery tale, "The Second Death of Hanuvar" (*From the Magician's Skull #3*), loved it, and so was eager to read one of his novels. So, my expectations were high to begin with. And they were transcended. Why?The characters, Asim and Dabir, are so satisfying and unique as sword and sorcery protagonists. Dabir is a scholar: objective, detached, and meticulous in comportment; Asim is a warrior: he acts agressively, intuitively, and without guile, and is as deadly in swift swordplay as a viper. But here's the source of their distinctiveness: both characters are duty-bound to their master and the Caliphate, and, higher still, to an unyielding system of ethical values: honor, friendship, and compassion (a surprising set for s&s heroes, you might wonder). Indeed, unlike the profligate Conan, the moody Elric, or the villainous Kane, Dabir and Asim are selfless and self-effacing. But, despite this, they are undoubtedly part of the s&s tradition and even personify its dual dynamics. (1) Sorcery: Dabir studies ancient lore and sorcerous cosmology, but he is no Elric; (2) Sword: Asim is a warrior who acts without overthinking, but he is no Clonan. Even more, the plot does not allow these characters to easily hew to their principles like knights. Without spoiling the plot, let is suffice to say that Jones provides intriguing moral/ethical crucibles for his heroic protagonists to navigate, in addition to supernatural s&s enemies like undead lions, spectral cities, giant serpents, and flame-throwing sorcerers. The setting is vivid and immersive, and informed by an obvious love of Islamic and Arabic mythology and literature, and, important for me, it is rendered with an economy of language without arresting the thrust of the plot; the narrative moves forward with momentum and the establishment of setting, culture, and atmosphere doesn't slow things down. If long political deliberations in council chambers are your thing, this novel might not be for you. Finally, the prose is precise and skillfully modulates to theme. In opening scenes, in the fair weather among pleasure gardens and chirping birds--when the characters are yet to engage in adventure--the prose and dialog is restrained and crystal clear; but when the action starts, the prose changes, becomes lyrical and blade sharp, almost as if mirroring the dynamism of the battles. In one memorable scene of the ultra-bizzare and the "extra-dimensional," Jones achieves a kind of fever dream-like effect of unreality. If my descriptions give the impression that this is an over-artful/overwrought novel, let me conclude by assuring you... it is not: to the contrary, it is an enthralling and joyful tale of mystery, daring, wonder, and adventure.
Profile Image for Derek.
1,257 reviews8 followers
November 26, 2012
Not just a good sword-and-sorcery novel, but a good novel. Its skeleton is of a relatively straightforward fantasy adventure (retrieve the foozle and avert disaster) but Jones invests heavily in characterization--particularly into Asim's narration--and in a palpably authentic yet never overwhelming adherance to the culture of the medieval Middle-East. One never forgets that Asim is a man of his place and time (and it is refreshing to see a soldier who is also a simply moral person and an effective storyteller), but the story is not limited by the framework of time and place, as evidenced by a memorable encounter with the Desert of Souls and the vaguely Lovecraftian Keeper of Secrets.

The dynamic between Asim and Dabir is a little like Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and a little like Watson and Holmes, and it's a joy to watch them finally click as a functioning duo.

If there is any quibble to be had, it is that their traveling companion Sabirah is not given her moment to shine, is sometimes relegated to the role of Damsel in Distress or other plot object, and is not likely to return in further stories.
Profile Image for S.E. Lindberg.
Author 17 books159 followers
December 9, 2012
”I have seldom met a man who so feared taking up a pen.” – So speaks a fortune teller to the hero Asim in “The Desert of Souls”

H.A. Jones is a Writer and Swordsman: If Howard A. Jones had any fear of taking up a pen to write, I am glad he overcame it. He has long held a passion for action fiction and throughout his career has re-introduced readers to Harold Lamb, moderated Sword and Sorcery websites, and edited the Dark Fantasy magazine Blackgate. With Desert of Souls he demonstrates his ability to translate his passion for revitalizing fantasy fiction by producing his own creative work. Well done. He seems to being living vicariously through his hero Asim who claims “not to be a writer… only a swordsman," but (since Desert of Souls is a first person narrative in Asim’s voice) Howard/Asim proves to be a worthy storyteller regardless of any alleged fear of writing instruments.

Kevin J. Anderson (author of The Map of All Things) aptly likened this book to “a cross between Sinbad and Indiana Jones,” and E. E. Knight (author of Vampire Earth Series) accurately described this as a “… rich, detailed tapestry—part Arthur Conan Doyle, part Robert E. Howard, and part Omar Khayyam, woven in the magical thread of One Thousand and One Nights.”

The writing is crisp and is carried by an engaging relationship between the duo: Asim and Dabir. Plenty of supernatural action (fights with djinns, undead creatures, sorcerers, etc.) saturate their adventures through treacherous deserts, ruins, and the otherworld. An abundance of miraculous/chance-encounters keeps this from a 5 star rating, but remains highly recommended. I look forward to delving into more Asim and Dabir tales: The Bones of the Old Ones and The Waters of Eternity.
Profile Image for Dee.
838 reviews47 followers
March 17, 2014
Set aside in some disgruntlement at page 123 (of 305) upon exhibiting irritating generic sexism in narration. But that was just the final straw. I had already been regarding it with a general paucity of enthusiasm due to its lack of immediacy and emotional involvement; our heroes (men, both of them) are the staff of an important man (specifics of importance never established) which is why they get involved in the business of the plot. Call me old-fashioned, but "because my boss told me to" isn't exactly a gripping motivational force to hook me into a narrative, and there's no "but this time it's personal" to ameliorate that. Not helped by a first-person narrator who's so fair and impersonal in his narration that I don't really get involved in things that are happening to him, let alone any of the other characters tagging along on this errand. Quest. Thing. (One of whom is their boss's niece, the only woman in the story, though she gives every evidence of just being another macguffin for all the self-powered agency she exhibits. Do not even try to tell me that you can't have active female characters in Islam-derived fantasy because The City of Silk and Steel was great.)

I really wanted to enjoy this, because YAY non-European fantasy. But this is just a tedious boys-own fantasy slog with different-shaped swords and occasional references to Islam. Not good enough.
Profile Image for Steve Goble.
Author 18 books86 followers
August 19, 2015
Take the sword-and-sorcery of Robert E. Howard and paint it liberally with the exotic colors of "A Thousand and One Nights," and perhaps a dash of Rafael Sabatini. This will give you an approximation of what to expect from "The Desert of Souls."

If that description does not sound like a fun read to you, I pity you.

Ordinarily, I would devour a book like this in a night or two. The vagaries of life slowed me down a lot as I read this, but I think it says a lot about the strength of the plotting and characters that I was able to jump right back in after being forced to skip reading for a few nights.

There is plenty of action, and big magic, but the strengths of this book are in the characters of Dabir the scholar and Asim the man of arms, and in the romanticized Muslim background. This novel is both a harkening back to the great days of sword-and-sorcery, and a step forward for the genre. I look forward to reading the second novel in this series, "The Bones of the Old Ones."
Profile Image for Joseph.
697 reviews94 followers
February 4, 2012
Well-crafted Arabian Nights-themed adventure fiction with more than a hint of magic and written with a fine eye to historical detail.
Profile Image for Bokeshi.
42 reviews54 followers
January 4, 2015
I'll admit, I bought this book for the cover. Okay, and because I love desert settings, buddy stories, sword & sorcery, and Arabian Nights, so it seemed to be my cup of tea entirely. It wasn't really what I was expecting, but still I was not disappointed -- the adventure was great, the plot interesting, the writing solid, although the characterization was quite weak, and there was very little actual buddy moments between two male leads. Overall, it was an enjoyable read with some moments of true greatness (the part with the lovecraftian Keeper of Secrets was awesome), and a satisfying ending. I was going to give it 3 stars, but that stunning cover deserves a star on its own.
Profile Image for Yune.
631 reviews21 followers
April 20, 2011
I couldn't help liking this one a lot. Somehow Jones took a character who isn't necessarily the brightest, and made him a great storyteller, and for that I give him kudos. Asim is the captain of the vizier's guard, and he sets out with a scholar to recover mysterious magical artifacts. It's a good one-two combo of intelligence and brawn, but not to caricature levels; both men are genuinely good at what they do, respect the other for his abilities, and forge a moving bond of partnership and trust. You can tell I've read too many romance novels (in which a simple misunderstanding sometimes takes up 90% of the pages) when I heaved a sigh of relief at the times when the two misjudged each other, then set it back to rights with a minimum of fuss.

There is a bit of schlocky humor (nothing intolerable; mostly on the level of how a dead parrot kicks off the whole story), quite likable characters, and a voice that's somehow both plain-speaking and ferffled up with the formal descriptions of someone relating a tale in a culture that respects this activity.

This is very solid sword-and-sorcery. Stark and lush settings! A beautiful sultan's granddaughter! Evil magicians! Kidnapping! Forgery! Fun all-around. It won't blow you out of the water with its greatness, but it's entertaining, and I think manages its eight-century Baghdad setting with aplomb.
Profile Image for Mikhail.
Author 1 book31 followers
March 19, 2017
An excellent adventure story, set in the heart of the Arabian Nights of Harun al-Rashid. Jones has a particular skill at knowing when to include history, and when to leave it out -- the setting is well-developed and fairly historically accurate, while at the same time filled with majesty, wonder, and lots and lots of fun. A very good book, all told.
Profile Image for Denise.
6,595 reviews109 followers
March 30, 2023
Historical fantasy that combines classic sword & sorcery with Thousand and One Nights flair. Jones takes his reader to 8th century Baghdad and into the desert that lies beyond, where his characters chase thieves and contend with undead creatures, a Greek spy, and a fire wizard bent on destruction.
Well rendered settings and an entertaining enough adventure, but the characters could have been more complex. A pleasant read, though I can't say I was exactly glued to the pages.
Profile Image for Jessica Strider.
515 reviews61 followers
December 3, 2013
Pros: rolicking adventure, fun characters, brilliant antagonist, afterword include source materials for research

Cons: Sabirah’s character felt superfluous

A fortune teller’s prophecy and a theft at Jaffar’s palace, send Jaffar’s captain of the guard, Asim el Abbas, and his scholar, Dabir ibn Khalil, on a quest to retrieve a magical artifact.

This book is a fun adventure story set in the eighth century Abbasid caliphate of Haroun al-Rashid. Told from Asim’s point of view, there are several fights, kidnapping, magic, monsters, and more. It’s a fast paced book with a highly intelligent antagonist, so things very often don’t go well for our heroes.

My only complaint with the book was that Sabirah, an intelligent woman with an eidetic memory, is only there as a student / accused love interest (though the latter isn’t a focus of the story, merely a complication for one of the protagonists) and kidnap victim. She helps out with information on one occasion but is otherwise a tagalong on the quest.

Still, it’s a great book and the afterword explains some of the history vs fantasy as well as gives historical sources should you wish to learn more about this era and its people.
Profile Image for Daniel.
714 reviews48 followers
May 6, 2018
This is a really fun, straight up, no apologies, sword and sorcery adventure story. The story starts out in Bagdad in the 8th century and features a lost city, magical artifacts, reanimated monkeys, and an evil wizard, among other things. It's told in the first person by Asim, a captain of the guard, who, along with his friend the scholar Dabir, finds trouble on what's supposed to be a pleasant (though undercover) outing with their employer in the city. I was hooked from the opening scene with the parrot, and never looked back. This is one I'm sure to reread in the future. The story stands complete, though I understand the author has done some short stories featuring these characters, and I hope we'll see further full length adventures in the future.
Profile Image for Liviu.
2,284 reviews638 followers
May 18, 2011
The book started very well but I lost interest fast and then tried to regain it by turning page after page and seeing what happens; the story moves fast so I finished the book but it had little magic for me - there were sparkles here and there but the Arabian Nights magic was lacking and I just did not feel the book was authentic but more of a Westerner's imagining of Harun al Rashid times.

For a recent book that I felt had the magic and the authenticity try Father of Locks by A. Killeen since this one is pretty forgettable
Profile Image for Candice.
140 reviews3 followers
April 8, 2015
Details at my blog

One of the best examples of characterization I've read in years. You can tell the author knows his characters and their relationships really, really well. The plot was awesome, too. Now I'll have to go find those short stories...
Profile Image for Benjamin.
188 reviews43 followers
April 9, 2011
This book was a fun sword-and-sorcery adventure yarn set in 8th Century Baghdad. Think of the Prince of Persia movie, but more historically accurate and better written. I get the sense that could be more stories set with the two main characters and it will be fun to read them if they are ever written.
Profile Image for Chris Willrich.
Author 36 books39 followers
August 11, 2011
(A longer version of this review first appeared on rpg.net.)

Short take: The Desert of Souls is a highly entertaining fantasy set in a well-realized Arabian Nights setting. It pulls off the neat trick of evoking Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber at the same time, while remaining its own thing.

Two issues up front: 1. Full disclosure: the author is also an editor at Black Gate magazine, which published a story of mine. 2. There will be mild spoilers, mostly of the first half.

The Premise

It is the era of Haroun al-Rashid, the ruler famously depicted in the stories of The Thousand and One Nights, a time of prosperity for the sprawling Abbasid Caliphate. It is also a time of strange wonders, for those who dare to look. Magic and monsters exist, and demons and djinn... and among those wise in such matters are two sorcerers plotting to destroy the city of Bagdhad and the empire it crowns.

Fortunately there are two other men, heroes both, placed by fate to stop them.

In a sense the swordsman Asim and the scholar Dabir aren't cut from the usual heroic fantasy cloth. They're not scrappy rogues, nor noble princes, nor even jaded veterans. They're household servants to Jaffar, the Caliph's vizier. Asim is his guard captain, and Dabir is his advisor and a tutor to his niece, Sabirah. They are comfortable and content, and have duties that would ordinarily make dashing off on a mad adventure, well, mad. But when Jaffar's mood plummets with the death of a beloved parrot, Asim takes it upon himself to cheer his employer up with an incognito stroll through storied Bagdhad. Dabir gets dragged along.

Asim, our narrator, will come to regret this plan. What happens next will also set the course for his future.

The Story (mild spoilers follow)

On their stroll about town our heroes and their master speak with a fortune teller. She pronounces these futures: Dabir will be known as a slayer of monsters, Asim as a great storyteller, and Jaffar as a tragic figure who tried to love beyond his station.

Jaffar believes the telling true, but is also inclined to think the three fates got mixed up. Jaffar has aspirations as an author, and so, he reasons, surely he is the storyteller -- not the blunt guard captain Asim, who can only be the monster-slayer. That leaves Dabir as the man who loves beyond his station. Perhaps Jaffar already suspects Dabir of feelings for Jaffar's brilliant niece Sabirah. In any event, Jaffar's mistrust of Dabir clouds the rest of the story.

Such musings must wait, however, for the fortune-teller also states that an important change in the trio's lives will begin in the street outside -- and her words are proven correct when a wounded man fleeing assassins collides with them. Asim's swordplay, with some assistance from Dabir, drives off the villains, but the injured man cannot be saved. In classic style, the story's main hook is revealed.

"The door," he muttered. "You must tell … the caliph …"

"The caliph?" Jaffar asked. "What?"

"The door -- the door pulls. Do not let them put them on …"

The master looked up at me, then back down at the man, whose eyes relaxed and looked upon the angels and the glory of God.

The door pulls are magical artifacts originating in the lost and accursed city of Ubar. Affix them to a door of the correct dimensions in the proper spot within that locale (so Dabir and Asim are later informed) and the way opens to a magical land of great power. Such is the intent of two sorcerers who seek this power to destroy the Caliphate, one out of revenge, one out of loyalty to a foreign power.

Jaffar does not really believe in magic, but he does believe in treasure. When the door pulls come to light and are snatched by the villains, Jaffar assigns Dabir to track down both. He also commands Asim to assist -- and to observe, for Jaffar's mistrust of Dabir's character continues to grow. Asim himself begins to wonder about Dabir, and the doubts are not improved when Sabirah sneaks aboard their river boat and joins the quest.

The journey is tangled and deadly, as our heroes face cutthroats, undead animals, a soul-hungry djinn, and greater dangers before they can catch the sorcerers and save the realm. By then their lives will be forever changed.

Things I Liked

There are many enjoyable elements here, and they work together smoothly. Asim's narration has a droll, dry humor to it, befitting an older man remembering a young man's adventures. We rarely hear Asim-the-narrator talk directly to the reader but the voice is there, and sometimes it's as if he is rolling his eyes at what the younger Asim's gotten himself into. There's also a nice irony in that initially no one, the younger Asim included, really believes he's got it in him to be a storyteller, even though the narration makes it clear he does.

The wary friendship between Dabir and Asim, complicated by Jaffar's suspicions and Sabirah's possible feelings for one or the other of them, is built up nicely, until by the final battle they are working as a capable team. One of the best moments in the book has them walking without much hope through the otherworldly desert of the title, reminiscing about their former wives. Asim has lost his first wife to sickness, and the second proved a bad match. Dabir's wife was killed when the Caliph messily put down an uprising -- a point which links him one of the villains, as both have similar reasons to hate the Caliphate, though Dabir for his part remains loyal.

That loyalty brings me to another element I like. Dabir and Asim are unusual sword-and-sorcery protagonists in that they're law-and-order types, doing their best to do the right thing, without being naive or stupid or cruel about it. While I've enjoyed plenty of stories about rogues and mercenaries and others decked out in moral grey tones, it's refreshing to see heroes who are trying to be just that, doing their utmost to save civilization, for all that they see its blemishes. Such heroism may be the standard for high/epic fantasy, but for S&S it's a striking choice.

Things I Didn't Like

There is an important supporting character who pretty much vanishes from the scene late in the book, in a way that didn't seem satisfying to me. It by no means ruins the story, but it left a sad feeling for me, as I very much like the character, whom I hope will return in a future installment.

Also, I wish there was more scene-setting and sensory detail of the historical milieu. There's certainly enough to ground the story, but not enough to fully transport me in the way I prefer my fantasy to do. I realize this is a matter of taste. The level of description I'd prefer might annoy other readers, who would want to get on with the action. Still, I was happiest midway in the book when Dabir and Asim stepped into an otherworldly realm and Jones' descriptions really took off.

Your-Mileage-May-Vary Department

True to the restricted rights of women in this setting, the story gives us few female characters. I think Jones does well with the character of Sabirah, who defies convention without ever seeming like an anachronistic transplant from 21st Century America. Nevertheless this is a very male-dominated story, and for some readers that may be worth knowing going in.

This is also most definitely a series book. It refers back to a prior adventure of Dabir and Asim (which appeared in an issue of Black Gate.) Jones uses a neat device for relating this backstory, by having Asim tell a condensed version of the story and surprising himself by being quite good at it. Despite having read the earlier tale I found this section entertaining. I don't know how a reader new to the characters would react, however.

Naturally the book leaves itself room for sequels. Some of the issues raised by the fortune telling at the start of the book are not resolved by the end (though we can see which way the wind is blowing.) We're left certain there are more adventures to follow. On the other hand, the immediate plot is satisfyingly concluded, so the story doesn't feel incomplete. If you have a strong allergy to series books, however, you may wish everything was tied up more tightly.


If there are two main posts holding up the circus tent of sword-and-sorcery, they are Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. While it may be an exaggeration to say that all subsequent S&S follows in the footsteps of one or the other, I do think that most later writers stick close to one tent pole or the other. I'd give both authors descriptors like fast-paced, energetic, colorful. But REH's work I'd also associate with words like historical, gritty, and serious, and Leiber's more with words like theatrical, urbane, and humorous.

The point is, I've rarely seen work that mixes both strains as thoroughly as The Desert of Souls. There's Michael Moorcock's Elric stories, an ironic take on Conan by someone who reveres Leiber. And the stories of James Enge I've read, about his wandering wizard Morlock Ambrosius, do have a combination of REH's edge and Leiberesque flash. But the mix in The Desert of Souls draws equally from both wells. Here you have adventurers as comfortable in cities as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (albeit on the lawful rather than larcenous side of the coin) setting out into remote and deadly environs that would suit Conan perfectly. I suspect the apparent ease with which Jones does this has to do with long practice and study of earlier writers -- not just Howard and Leiber but farther back to such ancestors as Harold Lamb, whose works Jones, wearing his editor's hat, has worked hard to revive.

This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Emily.
32 reviews4 followers
February 19, 2021
For some reason it took me a little while to get into this book, but once I did I really enjoyed it! I’m looking forward to reading more of the series!
Profile Image for Vicki.
2,283 reviews88 followers
September 18, 2019
I am conflicted how to rate this one because it's probably a 3 based on characterization and a 4 based on the writing/plot. I loved the 1001 Arabian Nights and the historical fiction the story is set, 8th Century. I haven't read many (if any) books set in that time frame and I don't think I've read any set in Baghdad before.

My issue is that while I do love plot and need a good story line, if I don't connect with the characters on some kind of emotional level, I just rarely can connect well to the book. I thought Asim (the narrator) was just meh...I just wasn't into him at all. I was hoping the one female character would be a strong one but I didn't get that from her. And the other characters were just not exciting. So I was a bit disappointed.

Profile Image for Ahimsa.
Author 24 books52 followers
April 10, 2012
This is a surprisingly great book. The plot is carefully constructed, the setting appropriately inspiring, and the characters are well-constructed and imminently likable. Two things stood out above and beyond this, however.

One of the things that impressed me the most was the dialogue. With much respect to its preceding sword-and-sorcery forebears, the dialogue always builds characterization. It's highly believable and witty without sounding like it was written to impress.

Equally note-worthy is the respect paid to the culture. The setting isn't a thin layer--the characters are truly a product of 8th century Arabia. (With the exception of the women, but having read some unabridged Arabian Nights, I think staying authentic to that would create too large a disconnect with modern audiences.)

The book is not flawless. There is a deus-ex-machina that emerges in the finale, and the fact that it is narrated from the future takes away a large amount of the suspense. We know the titular two characters will survive, which adds a layer of anti-climax to the story.

All in all, a fantastic story that should have appeal to all who ever loved Lankhmar or Cimmeria.
Profile Image for Fantasy Literature.
3,226 reviews165 followers
September 23, 2014
In 8th century Baghdad, a stranger pleads with the vizier to safeguard the door pull he carries, but is murdered before he can explain. Charged with solving the puzzle, the scholar Dabir soon realizes that the door pull may unlock secrets hidden within the lost city of Ubar, the Atlantis of the sands. When the door pull is stolen, Dabir and Captain Asim are sent after it, and into a life and death chase through the ancient Middle East.

Stopping the thieves — a cunning Greek spy and a Magian who commands fire — requires a desperate journey into the desert, but first Dabir and Asim must find the lost ruins of Ubar and contend with a mythic, sorcerous being known as the Keeper of Secrets. Yet the greatest challenges that Dabir and Asim may have to overcome are choosing where their loyalties lie, resisting a forbidden love, and following the path that fate has written… Read More: http://www.fantasyliterature.com/revi...
Profile Image for Petteri Hannila.
Author 37 books138 followers
April 23, 2014
Desert of souls is everything you can ask for a fantasy adventure. Exotic locations, interesting characters and intriguing plot twists.

Arabia in 700's is not your typical fantasy world and lends itself greatly as a background for the adventure.

Interestingly the main protagonist of the story is a soldier, who is teamed up with a scholar. The viewpoint of this "simpler mind" is greatly portrayed, often times he justifies his actions to himself (and to the reader) only to be judged afterwards by his colleague (and the reader). This dynamic is fun to follow.

Overall the style of the book resembles Robert E. Howard's work (which I like very much), but has a more classy, novel-like structure and plot. I'll definitely read the rest of this authors work as well.

Highly recommended.
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