Book Club: An exquisite homage to the tapestry of Arabic oral storytelling, Chelsea Abdullah’s The Stardust Thief is a wondrous and highly entertaining journey into a magical world filled with jinns, ghouls and secrets.
Inspired by the stories of One Thousand and One Nights, this book weaves the gripping story of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp. [Orbit Books]
Arabic-inspired fantasy books are rare in English-language publishing, especially when they come from voices from the region itself.
Written by Kuwaiti-American Chelsea Abdullah and published by Orbit Books, The Stardust Thief – the first book in The Sandsea Trilogy – is the latest addition to the Arabian-inspired fantasy genre. A must-have for your shelves, and a must-read!
In a world where written histories are more prevalent than oral histories, Chelsea Abdullah manages to combine the two in The Stardust Thief beautifully weaving stories within stories, tales within tales.
“The reader is immersed in an adventure where appearances are deceiving, identity is questioned and relationships are tested”
The book itself opens with a story, The Tale of the Jinns, which poignantly begins, “Neither here nor there, but a long time ago”. This beautiful beginning summons memories of a childhood spent listening to the stories of jinns and ghouls told by delighted (storyteller) played by a family member (often grandmothers).
Such an endearing tale makes the reader curious to know what other familiar references, even major elements, will be rooted in the tradition of Arabic oral storytelling and the various stories it encompasses.
The Stardust Thief world is one where humans and jinn are at odds. Humans ruthlessly hunt jinns because their silver blood gives life to everything it touches. Jinn blood transforms barren land into lush flower gardens with waterfalls.
This blood cannot bring people back to life but has great healing powers. More importantly, jinn magic lives in items that become enchanted and carry power that can prove useful. But these enchanted objects, these relics, have been declared illegal by the sultan.
And that’s exactly what the main character, Loulie Al-Nazari – Layla does for some. Best known as the Midnight Merchant, she sells relics which she tracks using her enchanted compass and her bodyguard and friend Jinn, 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 to the palace.
Left with little choice, she follows the Sultan’s army to the palace – an army so abnormally beautiful that it can only be a reminder of the shed blood of the jinns. There, the sultan orders him to go in search of the Sea of Sand and to look for a very old relic, a legendary lamp in which a powerful jinn is locked up.
Thus begins Loulie’s journey accompanied by one of the sultan’s sons, Aisha Bint Louas – a jinn hunter and one of Prince Omar’s forty thieves, and Qadir whose jinn identity remains hidden.
This quest for a magic lamp that is said to have the power to destroy all jinn will unexpectedly turn into a quest for identity during which many truths will unfold.
“In a world where written histories are more prevalent than oral histories, Chelsea Abdullah manages to combine the two in The Stardust Thief beautifully weaving stories within stories, tales within tales”
Through interludes that stand out for the background of parchment paper on which they are written, Chelsea Abdullah interweaves the main plot with the different tales necessary to understand the story.
The story of the legendary magic lamp, for example, is told by Mazen Bin Malik – the Sultan’s second son – who plays the role of rawi, himself being a character with good oral storytelling skills mainly thanks to his mother Shafia, herself a storyteller.
The figure of the rawi is the one who is very important and present in The Stardust Thiefof Old Rhuba who performs in different places and tells stories of “Easter Plains Bedouin tribes […] and Dhahab” – the city of jinns, to Mazen Bin Malik and Shafia, a character inspired by Scheherazade from the famous Thousand and one Night popular tales.
In reality, The Stardust Thief overflows with references to the famous Arabian nightsa collection of tales of Indian, Persian and Arabic origin.
Shafia and Sultan are taken from Scheherazade and Shahryar; the story of the magic lamp is strongly reminiscent of the story of Aladdin and the marvelous lamp; the sultan’s forty thieves, then later those of prince Omar Bin Malik remind the reader of Ali Baba and his own forty thieves.
Well-known creatures from Arabian folklore and mythology such as ghouls are an integral part of the cast, but lesser-known creatures like the dendan – a monster fish capable of eating entire ships – also make an appearance in The Stardust Thief.
But Chelsea Abdullah goes further, celebrating her own heritage (born and raised in Kuwait) with direct mention of Emirati folk tales. Indeed, when Prince Mazen wears the mask of Yousef the rawiamong the stories he tells are that of Hemarat Al-Gayla “the scary donkey creature who devoured children who strayed too far from home” and that of “Bu Darya, a fish-man who lured his prey into the ocean by pretending to be a drowning human.”
The reader is immersed in an adventure where appearances are deceiving, identity is questioned and relationships are tested.
Through this fantastical world, Abdullah ingeniously highlights issues related to our own real world. Loulie or the Midnight Merchant is baffled when she realizes how ordinary items become relics, items enchanted by jinn magic and that her business has capitalized on the jinn’s suffering as it is only by killing them that their magic can be stolen and stored in objects. .
As with Arabic folk tales that are didactic in nature, there might be a thing or two the reader could learn from. The Stardust Thief. And in this sense, Chelsea Abdullah is following in the footsteps of her predecessors and maintaining the tradition and culture of rawior storyteller, alive.
Assia Belgacem is a Franco-Algerian book critic specializing in Muslim and Arabic literature.
Follow her on Instagram: @shereadsox