The Stardust Thief: A magical nod to Arab oral story-telling
Arab-inspired fantasy books are few and far between in the Anglophone publishing world, even more so when they're coming from voices borne from the region itself.
Written by American-Kuwaiti Chelsea Abdullah and published by Orbit Books, The Stardust Thief - the first book of The Sandsea Trilogy - is the latest addition to the Arab-inspired fantasy genre. A must-have for your shelves, and a must-read!
In a world where written stories are more prevalent than oral stories, Chelsea Abdullah manages to combine both in The Stardust Thief by beautifully weaving stories within stories, tales within tales.
"The reader is engrossed in an adventure where appearances are misleading, identity is questioned and relationships are put to the test"
The book itself opens with a tale, The Tale of the Jinn, which starts poignantly, "Neither here nor there, but long ago". This beautiful beginning summons the memories of a childhood spent listening to jinn and ghoul stories told by ravis (storyteller) embodied by a member of the family (often grandmothers).
Such an endearing tale makes the reader curious as to what other familiar references, nay major elements, will be rooted in Arab oral storytelling tradition and the various stories it encompasses.
The Stardust Thief’s world is one where humans and jinns are at odds. Humans mercilessly hunt jinns as their silver blood brings life to anything it touches. Jinn blood transforms barren land into lush flowery gardens with waterfalls.
This blood cannot bring back people to life but has great healing powers. Most importantly, jinn magic lives on in objects that become enchanted and carry a power that can prove useful. But these enchanted items, these relics, have been declared illegal by the sultan.
And that’s exactly what the main character, Loulie Al-Nazari - Layla for some - does. Mostly known as the midnight merchant, she sells the relics she tracks with the help of her enchanted compass and her Jinn bodyguard and friend, Qadir.
Loulie’s already adventurous life takes a turn when the sultan sends his army to the night market, the underground souk where Loulie sells her illegal relics to bring her to the palace.
Left without much of a choice, she follows the sultan’s army to the palace - one that is so unnaturally beautiful it can only be a reminder of shed jinn blood. There, the sultan commands her to go on a quest to the Sandsea and look for a very ancient relic, a legendary lamp in which a powerful Jinn is locked.
Such begins Loulie’s journey accompanied by one of the Sultan’s sons, Aisha Bint Louas - a jinn hunter and one of the forty thieves of Prince Omar, and Qadir whose jinn identity remains hidden.
This quest for a magical lamp that is said to have to power to destroy all jinns will unexpectedly turn into a quest of identity during which many truths will unravel.
"In a world where written stories are more prevalent than oral stories, Chelsea Abdullah manages to combine both in The Stardust Thief by beautifully weaving stories within stories, tales within tales"
Through interludes distinguished by the parchment paper background on which they’re written, Chelsea Abdullah interweaves the main plot with the different tales necessary to the understanding of the story.
The tale of the legendary magical lamp for instance is told by Mazen Bin Malik - second son of the Sultan - who embodies the role of the rawi, himself being a character blessed with good oral storytelling skills mainly thanks to his mother Shafia, herself a storyteller.
The figure of the rawi is one that is highly important and present in The Stardust Thief, from Old Rhuba who performs in different places and tells tales from "Bedouin tribes of the easter plains […] and from Dhahab" - the city of Jinns, to Mazen Bin Malik and Shafia, a character inspired from Scheherazade of the famous One Thousand and One Nights folk tales.
As a matter of fact, The Stardust Thief overflows with references to the renowned Arabian Nights, a collection of tales of Indian, Persian and Arab origins.
Shafia and the Sultan are drawn from Scheherazade and Shahryar; the tale of the magical lamp heavily recalls the story of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp; the Sultan’s, and then later Prince Omar Bin Malik’s forty thieves remind the reader of Ali Baba and his own forty thieves.
Well-known creatures of Arab folklore and mythology such as ghouls are an entire part of the cast, but less-known creatures like the dendan - a monster fish able to eat entire ships - also make an appearance in The Stardust Thief.
But Chelsea Abdullah goes a step further by celebrating her own heritage (born and raised in Kuwait) with direct mention to Emirati folk tales. Indeed, when Prince Mazen wears the mask of Yousef the rawi, among the stories he tells are that of Hemarat Al-Gayla "the fearful donkey creature that devoured children who strayed too far from home" and that of "Bu Darya, a fish-man who drew his prey into the ocean by pretending to be a drowning human."
The reader is engrossed in an adventure where appearances are misleading, identity is questioned and relationships are put to the test.
Through this fantasy world, Abdullah ingeniously highlights issues relevant to our very own real world. Loulie or the Midnight Merchant is taken aback when she understands how regular items come to be relics, items enchanted with Jinn magic and that her business capitalized on the suffering of Jinns as it’s only by killing them that their magic can be stolen and stored into objects.
Similarly to the Arab folk tales didactic in nature, there might be a thing or two the reader could learn from The Stardust Thief. And in that sense, Chelsea Abdullah follows in the footsteps of her predecessors and keeps the tradition and culture of the rawi, or storyteller, alive.
Assia Belgacem is a French-Algerian book reviewer with a focus on Muslim and Arab literature
Follow her on Instagram: @shereadsox