Timy reviews The Stardust Thief the first book in The Sandsea Trilogy and the debut epic Fantasy novel by Chelsea Abdullah. Out on May 19, 2022 by Orbit.
|Series: The Sandsea Trilogy #1
|Genre: Epic Fantasy
|Date of Publishing: May 19, 2022
|Trigger Warnings: death, violence
|Page count: 538
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.
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.
Oh boy, where to start. I picked up The Stardust Thief because it sounded intriguing and although I was on the fence about whether I should request an eARC, knowing epic fantasy isn’t exactly my favorite genre. Eventually, my curiosity
killed the cat won. I’m still trying to make my mind up about if that was a good thing or not. You see, I have very conflicted feelings about Chelsea Abdullah‘s Arab culture-inspired/1001 Nights retelling debut novel. And while I’m sure it’ll receive a lot of love, I walked away from it a bit disappointed all things considered.
The Stardust Thief tells the story of Loulie and Mazen’s quest through the desert in search of an old jinn relic belonging to the sultan’s ancestor. They are accompanied by Qadir a jinn, and Aisha a jinn killer and one of Prince Omar’s forty thieves. As journeys tend to do, this one is also full of danger, unexpected encounters, and revelations both about themselves and about a deeper set of political and other intricacies.
I found the premise and the setting very intriguing from the start. We have the mysterious Midnight Merchant who illegally sells magical relics to whoever needs them, who also happens to have a jinn companion. In a country where jinn are hunted for their blood and their relics, this is a rather bold move. Their bond and dynamics are great though, and definitely one of the highlights of this novel. Loulie’s fame and name can’t escape the sultan’s ears and soon she finds herself in the middle of a quest that sends her to the Western Sandsea where the legendary jinn city, Dhahab lies under the sand. To her dismay, she must be accompanied by the oldest prince, Omar who is one of the most celebrated jinn hunters of the land, and one of her thieves, Aisha who is deeply loyal to him. Omar, however, has other plans and forces his little brother to take his place – Mazen always dreamed about being an adventurer, growing up on stories and being a great storyteller himself, but he very much would prefer to be safe, thank you very much.
If I had to pick a favorite character, I would be hard-pressed to do so as I found myself not really caring about them at all. They all remained somehow one-dimensional. Maybe Mazen had the most development as a character throughout the novel, but even that wasn’t quite enough. I also liked Qadir for his caring nature, but I also wanted to kick him for keeping so many secrets from Loulie. The person he admittedly cares about a lot. Also, I found it a bit hard to believe Loulie knew so little about him after being in his company for 9 years or so. And since we are talking about Loulie (I really dislike this name for some reason…) it was her and her relationship with one of the side characters that made me realize this book had too much telling and not enough showing. I’ll talk about my issues regarding the writing below, but we are told over and over again how the characters feel, and instead of making the reader sympathetic toward the said character, it just gets repetitive and makes you wish we would move on already. I get what I was supposed to feel, but I really didn’t.
I also thought that all of the characters would have benefited from a bit more fleshing out. Especially Aisha, who sometimes did very out-of-character things which seemed odd. I also read in a review that the characters are very passive and the plot happens to them rather than them taking an active part and I pretty much agree with that view.
One of the issues I had right from the beginning was that the writing didn’t click with me at all. It felt…clunky, somehow. I knew I was supposed to be drawn in by the atmosphere, but the description didn’t land well with me and I never felt immersed. I found the prose a bit bland if we are being honest. The pacing itself was very wavering as well – sometimes I started getting bored, then something interesting happened, and thought things might start improving only to lose my interest again. I think for the second half of the book it was mostly my growing frustration that kept me from enjoying The Stardust Thief. And I tried, I really did, but all I could think about was when it was going to end. A lot of times the quest itself got the backseat (my curiosity for this plotline what kept me from DNFing) as other plotlines seemed to get more time to develop. And while I wouldn’t say the overall outcome was predictable, it wasn’t much of a surprise either.
What I really enjoyed, however, was how some of the most famous Arabian tales – and probably some more I don’t know – were waved into the story. Like Omar and his Forty Thieves, or Mazen’s mother who survived the sultan’s wife-killing spree by telling him stories and finally winning him over, or the lamp itself. I loved learning about the jinns and their culture, their magic, and their relics. I found that really cool and wished they’d got more time for us to learn about them. A deeper dive, if you will. But based on the ending of The Stardust Thief, there is a very good possibility we’ll get that chance. The question is, whether I’ll want to stick around to find out more. We’ll see.
The Stardust Thief is Chelsea Abdullah‘s debut novel and as such, it has a lot of rough edges. The author has a clear vision and it’s really refreshing to read a fantasy novel with an Arabian setting which I think we need more. It has some cool ideas and a great premise, but it falls short on the execution. It’s a shame as this could have been a great novel if it got more time to find its feet. It was supposed to be character-driven but it felt underdeveloped, and even the plot couldn’t save it with it being a bit too meandering. Overall, I found The Stardust Thief disappointing, but as usual, you don’t need to take my word, as you might fall in love where I could not.