Reading Time: about 5 hours
This has been an excellent holiday season – I don’t normally get much time to read, but I’ve managed to polish off The Bones of the Old Ones. I was so impressed by Jones’s The Desert of Souls (of which you can find a review here), that I had been hoping for a sequel, and was disappointed to discover that the collection of Asim and Dabir stories titled The Waters of Eternity was only available on Kindle. At last, The Bones of the Old Ones has been released, and I immediately acquired it. My review follows, with minor spoilers ahead…
Asim the warrior and Dabir the scholar are enjoying the comforts earned from their previous services to the son of the vizier, Jaffar. Told once again in first person, not through the eyes of Asim as it happens, but rather as a story being written some years later, the adventure begins immediately. Asim and Dabir are no longer members of Jafar’s household; they now have their own house in the city of Mosul. When a beautiful woman escapes her kidnappers and is found by one of Asim’s servants, Asim and Dabir pledge their assistance to help her return home. However, matters get complicated when the kidnappers try to take her back by force. It seems that the kidnappers are ancient and powerful wizards called Sebitti, and their arrival sets off a series of confrontations that reveal the kidnapped woman, Najya, is cursed. To break the curse, Asim, Dabir, and Najya must venture out to find the bones of the old ones, ancient weapons that are thought to be able to break the curse. Things, however, are not always as they seem, and as the curse gets stronger, the entire world is threatened. It is up to Asim and Dabir to join forces with one of their old enemies and try to keep the world from falling to an an ancient, alien evil.
In my review of the first book, I was impressed by the way Jones grew Asim’s character. That growth continues here, with Asim’s heart, courage, and determination becoming more defined as his most prominent characteristics, but he is also supported by his wits and wisdom. Like Hamil the poet in The Desert of Souls, who won over Asim’s dislike and mistrust, Asim is able to win over an old enemy, who comes to realize that Asim is not just a thug with a sword, but is much more than he first seems. Dabir again does not seem to change much – he seems like a tragic character – however, he possesses traits similar to Asim’s, and seems to show a resilience in the face of tragedy. Other supporting characters are well done, with the Sebitti portrayed not as simply good or evil; rather, they have their own specific motivations that are self-serving, although at times their shifting motives are hard to comprehend. The female characters are more fleshed out and show more depth than the first book; Najya is integral to the plot and is a strong character, but I would argue that the Greek necromancer Lydia is one of the best characters in the story – she also is transformed by events, and has more depth than first appearances suggest. She is a very strong character, and the tension and presence she brings is a welcome addition to the tale.
The plot moves along at a brisk pace. There are copious amounts of action and no pages are wasted filler, as the plot advances rapidly and more mysteries unfold as the story moves to its conclusion. It also helps that Jones doesn’t have to spend time on introducing us to Asim and Dabir, since that’s already been done in The Desert of Souls. The scope of the plot is far more epic than the first book, with the fate of the world at stake. There were some twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, with lots of shifting allegiances, and Jones does a good job of veiling who lives and who dies until they meet their ends. I can say that the ending was not surprising, given the fact that it could of gone one of two ways – happy or tragic – but it’s the tension of not knowing which of the two ways the story will go that keeps it compelling, as either ending would be fitting. Fantastical elements abound, from magic weapons and spells to flying carpets, rocs, and ghostly ice spirits. Humor is much the same as it is in the first book, delivered as witty barbs.
Like The Desert of Souls, The Bones of the Old Ones is an easy, enjoyable read thanks to the smooth, flowing prose of Jones. Although 8th century Arabia is still the setting, the culture is not quite as prominent as the previous story, due to the fact that much of the action takes place in barren countrysides and ruins. Jones has still done his homework, however, tying his story to some ancient legends and touching on the conflicts between Arabs, Greeks, and Khazars. Some of these thoughts can be found in the afterword, which provides a bit of insight into Jones’s thought process and his recommended references, and where Jones also reveals Howard Lamb and Fritz Leiber to be inspirations. According to Jones, however, it is Zelazny’s Amber series that he perhaps admires most, and maybe that is why I’m so drawn to Jones’s work, because that is the series that I admire most as well, as I mentioned in my classic review of Nine Princes in Amber earlier this year (I also purchased The Road to Amber a few months ago just to read the Amber-related short stories).
In conclusion, the sequel is everything I hoped it would be: more epic in scope, with a great deal of action and adventure, while at the same time improving the depth of supporting characters, all wrapped in the guise of a mystery…swords and sorcery doesn’t get any better than this. Jones is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors, and I for one hope he continues to find success and gives us more stories in this setting. Highly recommended to all – I believe there’s something here for everyone.
Imagine my surprise when I received a comment moderation notice and found that it was none other than Mr. Howard Andrew Jones, author of The Desert of Souls! I’ve been getting a lot of hits, but not a lot of comments, so the fact that an author commented was a huge surprise, and totally made my day! Mr. Jones also states that he has submitted a sequel, which is great news for fans of The Desert of Souls. You can find his site at www.howardandrewjones.com.
In other news, I received my replacement copy of The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. The defective copy will be going back tomorrow.
Finally, I should have a review of Night of Knives up by tomorrow night. Then it’s on to The Wise Man’s Fear – all 1000 pages. The review of that monster of a novel may not be coming for some time, as it is probably about a 20+ hour read…
Format: Hardback, First Edition, 2011
Reading Time: about 6 hours
Told in first-person perspective through the eyes of Asim, who is the Captain of the Guard for Jaffar, son of the vizier, The Desert of Souls is a sword-and-sorcery adventure set in 8th century Baghdad.
Here are some other reviews for The Desert of Souls:
It was Robert Thompson’s Review at Fantasy Book Critic that intrigued me and led me to purchase this book, and I’m glad I did. The Desert of Souls is an engaging, enjoyable read that made me regret putting the book down whenever I had to stop and attend to other things. Robert refers to suggestions that the story is a cross between 1001 Nights and Sherlock Holmes; references are also made to Robert E. Howard, Sinbad, Indiana Jones…I don’t agree with all of these comparisons, but I would throw in Michael Moorcock’s Elric books. This felt very much to me like Elric meets Arabian Nights; not so much the Elric character, but rather Moorcock’s style and descriptions, albeit with a first-person narrative.
What I liked most about the book is the prose of Jones. Smooth and effortless, with a definite middle-eastern flair, I fell in love with Jones’s style and his skill at weaving adventure, action, wit, religion, and realism into a cohesive story. It also doesn’t hurt that a good first-person narrative is my favorite kind of story.
As I finished the book, I was struck by the changes that Asim goes through, some obvious and some more subtle (I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum here). Asim begins the story with an almost blind devotion to his master Jaffar and God. He has few friends, disdains and feuds with the house poet, and is concerned with etiquette and protocol. He sees few problems that can’t be solved by either his sword or God’s will. By the end of the story, Asim experiences true friendship, sacrifice, bravery, and trust in others; he violates protocols at the risk of his own life; and he even questions his own misconceptions and shortcomings. He is transformed by his adventure, and is an easy hero to root for.
His friend Dabir does not achieve the same amount of transformation, though he does go through some changes. Dabir is a scholar who does a lot of the thinking and planning. Other characters act realistically but perhaps aren’t fleshed out as much as they could be. Firouz and Diomedes are good villains; Firouz is well-done, with an initial magnanimity towards the heroes, that gives way to annoyance and then hatred as Asim and Dabir attempt to thwart his plans. The most annoying character is probably Sabirah, Dabir’s student and Jaffar’s niece. Her actions, while they drive tension in the story, feel superfluous and unnecessary; the story could have been written without her and the reader wouldn’t be missing much. I know that her actions are a reflection on her society’s restrictive attitudes towards women. It is also true that she’s the only female in the story with more than a bit part.
The settings are believable and have just enough detail to keep the story moving without bogging it down. I really came away with the impression that Jones has brilliantly captured 8th century Baghdad and that he is well-studied and knows his subject matter, whether it be the history of a city or the nuances of Islamic customs. One of the most fantastic scenes in the book occurs in the desert, with a trip to an alternate world. Here is where the book derives its title…The Desert of Souls refers to an area in this other world where souls are trapped by a powerful entity. I found that this alternate world was one of the better parts of the story.
Wit is abundant throughout the book, sometimes used to impart information or drive home a subtle barb, other times to provide humor. Speaking of humor, I did laugh out loud when Hamil the poet is launched over the head of a camel while trying to ride it.
Jones often takes the time to explain the actions or thinking of his characters, making sure to plug holes where there are questions. Unfortunately, this is less prevalent towards the end of the book, when some of Dabir’s actions and knowledge are questionable and not explained. This, however is a minor quibble and the story doesn’t suffer for it. The other minor quibble I had was with chapter length. Sometimes it’s hard to find a place to stop. For instance, chapter 4 is only 11 pages, but chapter 5 is 36 pages. But again, this is a minor issue.
Howard Andrew Jones has hooked me with a terrific story of middle-eastern adventure, rife with magic, swordplay, and great prose. I hope he decides to write another installment in the same setting with some of the same characters…I for one would look forward to such a tale, and I’m happy to have added The Desert of Souls to my library.