Once in a while, you come across a story you didn’t realize you were starving for until it was sitting right in front of you. Such was the case with Chelsea Abdullah’s debut novel The Stardust Thief, a sweeping, magical fantasy epic and the first in a trilogy I absolutely cannot wait to get my hands on in its entirety.
I’ve been a lover of the fantasy genre since childhood, and while there are still stories within that genre I enjoy, they all began to feel a little too similar after a while. Many were Eurocentric – or imitation-Europe centric – and if there happened to be a character that could be suggested to share my Middle Eastern heritage, it was a toss up as to whether or not they were the villains of the story, or at the very least the lackey of the villain. After a while I began to take those stories for what they were, accepting there wasn’t really space for people like me in fantasy.
The Stardust Thief takes that assumption, that defeat, and throws it right out the window. It flies in open defiance of every narrative that ever tried to make that part of the world seem like a monolith. It is set in a fictional Middle Eastern land whose geography is every bit as diverse as I know the Middle East to be. Cities are sprawling metropolises, and each one they visit feels different. The desert is not all barren and sandy, instead dotted with oases and port towns. You’d think this would be a given across fiction, alas it is not.
The story follows Loulie, who goes by “The Midnight Merchant” and who deals in jinn artifacts as she is volun-told by the Sultan of Madinne to accompany his eldest son on a quest into the Sandsea – a treacherous desert – in search of a magic lamp. The scheming prince in question, Omar, uses magic to switch places with his much kinder brother Mazen, who heads out on the quest with Loulie in his brothers place.
Also along for the adventure are Qadir, a jinn and Loulie’s business partner-slash-bodyguard, and Aisha, one of the thieves in Omar’s service, who travels with them to protect her employers interests. Together the four of them venture out on their quest, each carrying the weight of expectation, grief and the secrets they keep from one another. The Stardust Thief is as much a character study as it is an adventure, and it really thrives for it.
Woven throughout the mythos and characters Abdullah has created are tales and legends I recognized. Of course, they are not presented as literal retellings of a famous story. Rather, there is just enough familiarity there that the reader can pick up on which story she is alluding to. One such tale took me by such surprise (in the best way) that I gasped out loud.
It was this, too, that I realized I had been missing in my fantasy depictions of the Middle East. The region is no monolith as I said, but there is enough cultural overlap that many elements of our mythos and legends are shared across nations. We have been sorely lacking stories that treat it as the sprawling, epic, diverse literary canon that it is, and The Stardust Thief gives us exactly what we need.
Beyond how much this book resonated with me on a cultural level, it is honestly just a ton of fun. The characters are relatable and allowed to wallow in their messiness, or make mistakes without being punished for it. They joke and tease with as much ease as they fight. The action is so carefully blended with quiet, tender moments. The characters actually talk things out like grownups.
The adventure itself is breathtaking. It never feels drawn out or endless. Instead, it feels more thoughtful and episodic, with each piece of the mystery surrounding the jinn and their magic unravelled slowly for the characters so that the reader might piece things together as the characters do. Despite the episodic nature, however, there are moments of genuine tension that keep you eagerly going from one page to the next. It is a work of art and a must read for any fan of fantasy.
I mean it when I say the wait for the next book is going to be a long one.
The Stardust Thief is available now. Special thank you to Orbit Books for an advance copy for review purposes.
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