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Crossed the Deserts Bare

The Stardust Thief  (Sandsea Trilogy, volume 1)

By Chelsea Abdullah 

27 May, 2022

Doing the WFC's Homework


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Chelsea Abdullah’s 2022 The Stardust Thief is the first volume in Abdullah’s secondary-universe Sandsea Trilogy. 

Mortal humans live in a barren landscape scoured by the hubris of the ancient jinn kings, a land where even walled cities do not always provide protection against malicious jinn. But there are valuable treasures hidden in the wastelands, treasures a knowledgeable few know how to salvage. 

Loulie al-Nazari, famous as the Midnight Merchant, is one such expert. Her treasures are worthy of a sultan. However, the sultan who has her detained and dragged in front of him has no interest in her welfare. What he wants is her expertise.

The sultan is utterly convinced that somewhere out in the desert is a lamp, an artifact of unparalleled power, a relic of the golden age of the jinn kings. Old documents attest that it existed when the city was founded. The sultan believes the lamp still exists. He has sent out several quests; no quester has ever returned. 

The Midnight Merchant is offered a simple choice: undertake the quest herself or go to prison. She accepts the quest, figuring that she has a better chance of surviving the quest than the dungeon.

The sultan is no fool. Loulie might simply run away once outside the city. Or she might keep the lamp for herself. Hence Loulie will be accompanied by the sultan’s son Omar, feared head of the Forty Thieves (who despite their name are not thieves, but merciless jinn hunters). Disappoint Omar and Loulie’s head will go bouncing across the sands. 

Unbeknownst to his father, Omar is working on some plans that are nearly complete. He must be at hand to supervise them and cannot take time out for a trip to the desert … nor does he want anything to do with a quest that might lead to his death. Hence he bullies his younger, timid brother, Mazen, into taking his place. A magic spell will give Mazen the appearance of Omar. And if Mazen dies in the quest? Shrug. 

What neither the sultan or Omar know is that Loulie succeeds in her search for jinn artifacts because her mentor and closest friend Qadir is himself a jinn. If this were to be known, both Loulie and Qadir would suffer. 

The result: a tangle of desperation and deception.


Cliff hanger warning: this book ends in one.

I read this in paper, thanks to publisher Orbit who sent me a copy. They also sent me an e‑arc, which allows me to compare and contrast the two formats. Well, there was a problem. The novel draws for inspiration on One Thousand and One Nights. It also quotes folk stories. Quotes are formatted as black print on a gray background. I found this format nearly unreadable in the paper version. The epub edition was easier to read.

Abdullah’s secondary fantasy universe is filled with beings drawn from Middle Eastern myth. As is so often true of secondary-universe magic-rich settings, the result is a world even more hostile to human life than real-world arid kingdoms [1]. It’s not just that the deserts are murderous; humans wandering outside of well-fortified cities have to survive jinn, ghouls, and other supernatural menaces. Human existence must be rather precarious. Do not underfund your city’s infrastructure. 

This is where I generally grumble about yet another archaic authoritarian government. In this case, however, not only does the author have a very specific historical model in mind, much of the plot is driven by what I will obliquely describe as emergent properties of this particular approach to governance and succession. It’s less a celebration of this mode of government, more a pointed critique. Still, it’s just another brutal autocracy. 

Most readers won’t be as distracted by world-building and political theory as I was. That’s all in the background; the book’s focus is on Loulie, her tragic past, and her excessively exciting present. 

Excursions into premature succession drama aside, this is a fun tome. Loulie is an engaging character, and the narrative is engaging. I’d prefer that it hadn’t ended quite as it did, but I suppose the cliffhanger will ensure I track down the next book to see what happened. 

The Stardust Thief is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1. Editor’s note: I am reminded of too many movies featuring fantasy kingdoms with apparently no farmland whatsoever (Peter Jackson’s Gondor, various Conan movies, etc.)