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Tuesday, May 10, 2022

The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah - Review

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OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO: Chelsea Abdullah is an American-Kuwaiti writer born and raised in Kuwait, where she grew up listening to stories about mysterious desert creatures and wily (only sometimes likable) heroes.

Consumed by wanderlust, she has put down roots in various states. After earning her MA in English at Duquesne University, she moved to New York, where she currently lives. When not immersed in her own fictional worlds, she spends her free time playing video games, doodling characters, and hoarding books she doesn’t have the shelf space for.



FORMAT/INFO: The Stardust Thief will be published on May 17th, 2022 by Orbit Books. It is 463 pages long, split over 70 chapters. It is told in third person from the POVs of Loulie, Mazen, and Aisha. It is available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant, purveyor of jinn relics, powerful enchanted items from the days before the jinn abused their power and were banished from the earth by the gods. All know that any remaining jinn are evil creatures, to be hunted and killed on sight, and even their relics are illegal to possess. Loulie knows that the stories aren’t all true – she owes her life to a jinn who rescued her as a child from a massacre and has kept her safe ever since. But Loulie will be forced to see just how true the rest of the stories are when she is captured and forced by the sultan to embark on a quest to retrieve an ancient lamp, one that supposedly not only has the power to heal the land, but to put an end to the jinn once and for all. Accompanied by an untrustworthy prince and a jinn-hunting thief, Loulie’s travels bring her to many strange and dangerous places. And with each encounter, Loulie increasingly questions the stories about the jinn that all humans accept as fact.

The Stardust Thief is an enchanting tale that is easy to lose yourself in. It lightly draws influence from One Thousand and One Nights; around every corner is a new fable or myth that explains the origin of an artifact or how a particular jinn was defeated. At the same time, this story is an interrogation of how myths are used to shape a people’s perception of things, and a reminder that just because a story exists, doesn’t mean it’s how things really happened.

Much of The Stardust Thief, from the plot to the characters to the magic, share a common theme of having a simple, almost one-dimensional surface that slowly shows a more messy, complicated side over time. Jinn artifacts, for instance, each have a simple purpose. A coin that can be flipped to reveal if a statement is true or false. A bag of infinite size. A shawl that keeps a person cool in the hottest deserts. But there’s more going on then it seems at first glance, a fact which helps deepen the story over time.

The characters themselves are a bit of a mixed bag, especially as they can come as one dimensional archetypes, much like the characters in the fables that are constantly told over the course of The Stardust Thief. Like the relics, however, the characters do grow over time, and I came to appreciate the new directions some of them took by the end of the book. Loulie is the stand-out character, a practical woman who focuses on survival after a particularly haunting childhood. Aisha, the thief, begins as something of a stereotype (prickly woman with lots of knives, will maim you if you look at her cross-eyed), but has some interesting developments that make her worth watching. Mazen, the prince, can be a bit frustrating in his cowardice and self-defeatism, though he too slowly learns how to manage it. In short, they start out hard to love, but draw you in over time.

I had a hard time putting The Stardust Thief down and enjoyed the episodic adventures of the heroes, a structure which mimics that of One Thousand and One Nights. That said, I did find myself frustrated by the fact that it felt like key big picture story moments kept happening off screen, with our heroes (and audience) informed about them later. I also a (perhaps irrational) hang-up on a central conceit of the main-story: the fact that cowardly, kind Prince Mazen switches places with his brash, cruel brother Prince Omar, and is able to somewhat convincingly act like Omar for several days. Even allowing for the illusion magic that allows the switch, I had a hard time believing the premise, though perhaps I’m simply not giving enough credit for people’s prejudices and preconceptions that cloud their perception of others.

CONCLUSION: Even with some storytelling flaws, however, there’s no denying the magic as a whole in this adventure. It’s the kind of book I found myself constantly trying to carve out time to read during my busy day, and the chapters simply slip by. I will happily pick up the sequel when it comes out, ready to be whisked away to a land of shifting sands and magic artifacts.

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