Books and cleverness are the backbone of many a brainy soul. So when cleverness appears in a book, these are the people who will take appreciative notice. In Chelsea Abdullah’s debut fantasy novel, The Stardust Thief, savvy readers will find cues towards the cleverness in the author’s writing from the choice behind the story’s title to strategies behind character development and plot progression.
Much of The Stardust Thief feels familiar, mainly because the story centers the actions of characters from the Middle Eastern classics One Thousand and One Nights and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Yet, this story is no retelling. What we find in The Stardust Thief are three divergent though harmonious point of view characters who are either part of the lineage for these stories (Prince Mazen and Aisha) or brutally impacted by their maneuvering (Loulie). In this world, Prince Mazen is the only child of Shirazad and the sultan who murdered numerous wives until she captured his love through story. Sadly, by the start of The Stardust Thief, Prince Mazan is left only with a few memories of his beloved mother, who died at the hands of a jinn. Because of this murder and the sultan’s alliance as the former leader of The Forty Thieves, a syndicate of prolific jinn hunters, the sultan commands Prince Mazan’s older brother, Omar, to lead The Forty Thieves, authorizing a full scale genocide on all jinn. One of the forty thieves is Aisha, a woman who was directly recruited at a young age by Prince Omar thanks to her efficiency in thievery. When Prince Omar tasks her with accompanying Prince Mazen on a quest, her understanding of the world and loyalty to Prince Omar is sorely tested. Another point of view character whose worldview is tested along their shared journey is Loulie, a mysterious merchant of magic goods that she finds by use of forbidden magic. As these characters move towards their target in a long trek across their land, they find that the secrets they hold about themselves have life or death consequences for the others in their party. Secrets that are unveiled at the most extreme of times.
In a story that holds storytellers in high esteem, Abdullah proves her own mastery of the craft through clever alignment of character motivations, tensions to character relationships amplified by reader awareness, and plot pacing strengthened by character reveals. All of these details are buoyed by highly immersive writing that paints evocative images sure to please all senses. Take this passage:
Traveling through the desert was an already exhausting endeavor, but to do it while attempting to suffocate all sound made the journey doubly tiring. It suddenly seemed as if every motion was dangerous: the rustling of his equipment as he shifted on his saddle, the click of stirrups every time he urged his horse in a different direction, and even the hiss of the sand as it gathered and slid off his clothing in undisturbed streams.
It’s hard not to feel as if you are witnessing each character’s experience as they unfold all due to the strength of Abdullah’s writing. The author strategically makes the reader aware of either character secrets or the existence of a secret in smartly paced moments that leave you wondering when they will come to light, then delivers these reveals in such a way that story progression feels natural, not ill-timed.
With so many features that make this first book in what is sure to be a delightful fantasy epic series, The Stardust Thief is a story for readers who enjoy collecting narrative easter eggs for the big reward that comes in the end.
*BGC kindly thanks the team at Orbit Books for early access to this book.*