Title: The Stardust Thief
Author: Chelsea Abdullah
Publication date: May 17, 2022
One Sentence Summary: In a world where the humans and jinn are at war with each other, the Midnight Merchant and her bodyguard are sent by the sultan to recover a jinn relic from a jinn city underneath the Sandsea and are accompanied by the High Prince and one of his thieves.
The Stardust Thief is a story of stories. An Arabian-inspired fantasy that draws heavily from One Thousand and One Nights, it paints a fascinating story of humans and jinn. This is a quest story that follows the Midnight Merchant and her mysterious bodyguard, a prince who has been stuck in the palace all his life, and a jinn hunter who doesn’t know all the secrets around her. While the quest itself was a bit lackluster, the slow pace really gave the world and the characters a chance to breathe life into the book. It allowed for the stories and memories to pour out, to bring the past to the forefront. This story moves slowly and there’s clearly no rush, but I loved the slower pace as it gave me time to enjoy the world, get to know the characters, and fall in love with all the stories nested within the pages.
The Stardust Thief follows three characters: Loulie, the Midnight Merchant; Mazen, the third Prince and the son of a legendary storyteller; and Aisha, one of the High Prince’s Forty Thieves. In a world where the sultan commands the deaths of all jinn, the jinn retaliate, perpetuating war between the two. High Prince Omar has taken his father’s place as the King of the Forty Thieves, hunters who kill jinn and horde their relics while the Midnight Merchant has a secret she desperately needs to keep under wraps.
There’s a story in the royal family, one that tells of a powerful jinn trapped in a lamp by the first sultan and subsequently thrown to the jinn city that was sunk beneath the Sandsea, and the sultan wants it in order to rid the world of jinn. The Midnight Merchant is renowned for her ability to retrieve any jinn relic with the assistance of her bodyguard Qadir, who holds his own secrets, so the sultan contrives to send Loulie to retrieve the lamp. Ostensibly, Prince Omar would be accompanying them, but he manages to switch places with Mazen, who longs for adventure anyways, as some sort of plan in the city requires his presence. To look after Mazen, Omar sends Aisha, one of his trusty thieves. But, while the journey starts out well enough, there are many things that are not as they seem and the desert holds many secrets.
The Stardust Thief draws heavily on One Thousand and One Nights to present a gorgeous Arabian-inspired fantasy full of sand, sun, and bloodthirsty humans and jinn. It’s a story of stories, and every story adds something to either the world, the characters, or the story that slowly begins to grow more and more layered. It’s told by three main viewpoints, all of whom are in some way transformed during their journey, who all make discoveries and learn about the lies that were carefully crafted around them. The Stardust Thief isn’t exactly fast, and it isn’t exactly action-packed, but it slowly peels back layers without overwhelming the story with too much happening around the characters.
There are many hints of what might be going on in the city of Madinne, where the sultan rules from and where the High Prince conspired to place himself for a plot that would have some serious ramifications. While it felt like the bulk of the action might be there, I actually loved that it wasn’t brought in. The Stardust Thief very much felt like a quest story and I liked that it stayed that way. Omar’s POV could have been added, but I loved finding out what happened alongside the characters, loved feeling just how shocked they were and their confusion about where it left them. The story really allows the reader to get to know Loulie, Mazen, and Aisha and their different sides and goals so the last third of the story really made me feel like I was roped in, feeling all those intense and confusing emotions with them.
The quest itself wasn’t the most interesting thing. Certainly, there were interesting things that happened to break up the long travel over the seemingly never-ending sand, but it felt fairly straightforward. They were on a mission and nothing was going to stop them. I had quite a lot of fun discovering the world and the powers of the jinn during their travel. It was also a great time to learn about the characters. While both everything and nothing was happening to them, it was fun to see how they reacted, how they dealt with trouble and with absolutely nothing happening.
I very much felt that Loulie and Mazen were the central characters as Aisha, even though she had her own chapters, was just keeping so many secrets and just never really seemed to let the reader in. Where Loulie and Mazen felt like open books, telling stories and wearing their emotions on their sleeves (though it was a lot of fun when Mazen couldn’t), Aisha kept everything close to her chest. I didn’t feel like I had a good handle on who she was until the end, when suddenly everything shifted for all of them. Loulie, though, kind of felt boring with Qadir on page with her. As the daring Midnight Merchant, her mysterious story revolves more around the fact that she isn’t always around to sell her wares and she has a remarkable ability to find numerous jinn relics. I felt that her identity as the merchant was mostly made from wisps of whispered stories, because Loulie herself was kind of bland. Her whole story was wrapped around wanting to find who murdered her tribe, as well as the push and pull of belonging and wanting to be free. Without Qadir to bounce off of, there wasn’t anything truly spectacular about her. She felt young and sometimes scared and very much in need of some self-assuredness. Even though I might have wished for Qadir to have his own POV, I liked that he didn’t. He had some great secrets and I loved discovering them as Loulie did. He was quite an interesting character, and I adored his utter patience and devotion. Mazen, too, was interesting, especially when it came to all the different roles he had to play. He’s such a curious character and I loved his thirst for adventure and life. He had been sheltered in the palace all his life as a treasured son of the sultan, so his yearnings for life beyond the palace walls was adorable and quite understandable. His youthful interest and his desire to be useful while also fearing what might happen really defined who he was. Aisha was the most mysterious of the trio, keeping secrets while also subtly revealing some interesting tidbits about herself. I loved how devoted she was and how unmistakably her she always worked to be. She was quite a fun character, but I never really felt I got to know her.
The Stardust Thief is a fantastic story with tons of stories and memories nested inside it. Since it draws from One Thousand and One Nights, I loved how seamlessly it flowed into the stories and out of them. It felt tightly woven while also breathing to allow that bit of magic. It was fantastic to get to know the human and jinn versions of the same stories. Getting both sides of the story really helped broaden both the story and the world. It was great to get to know it little by little with the characters very much plodding through the human world, but there were always hints of the jinn world everywhere. There were intricacies to both worlds that were hinted out, and I look forward to seeing how this world will be broadened in the next book.
If I have a complaint, it’s that too much of the end felt a little too convenient. I wasn’t a big fan of the way it ended. It was probably the most action-packed part of the story and had the most secrets unfolding while also leaving a lot unsaid for the next book. But I felt the characters were put into a corner and then magic abruptly came to save the day. It might have been a little easier to swallow if some secrets had been at least hinted about earlier, if some of the characters hadn’t been quite so sneaky, and if one of them had recalled a tale given earlier in the story.
The Stardust Thief embraces the art of storytelling and offers it to the reader. In some ways, it made it feel like a different sort of fantasy novel. It isn’t quite straightforward and sometimes I had to double back to recheck something in one of the stories, but I liked how the quest still relentlessly kept going forward. There was no real sense of urgency in the story, which might make it seem a little slow, but I loved that it offered the space for the stories to breathe and for the world and the story to come to life.
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Thank you to Angela Man at Orbit for a physical review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
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