THESTARDUST THIEF by Chelsea Abdullah (BOOK REVIEW)
“Let us speak of lies and truths, and of the story hidden between them.”
Neither here nor there, but not so long ago a tale of jinns, magical relics, desert landscapes, ancient ruins and characters on a perilous quest captivated me whole. The Stardust Thief is a spectacular debut novel by Chelsea Abdullah.
In a barren land where jinn are hunted for their life-giving blood, where their magical relics are made illegal to possess, a merchant of many names reluctantly embarks on a journey where if she succeeds it will both save and destroy all that she loves. Loulie al-Nazari, the Midnight Merchant, Layla to some, is the infamous seller of rare jinn relics, a criminal by rights, but one who by the help of her jinn bodyguard has managed to elude the attention of the sultan’s soldiers. That is until one day unbeknownst to her, she saves a prince from jinn possession and her location is revealed to the sultan himself. After her capture he offers her a choice, be executed or agree to embark on a quest to find the rarest of relics— a magical lamp with the power to restore nature to their lands by annihilating all jinn.
What follows from there is a thrilling journey into the perilous Sandsea desert, where Loulie, Qadir her bodyguard, the sultan’s oldest son and his most trusted warrior-thief Aisha, face attacks by ghouls, a fearsome ancient jinn and The Hunter in Black.
Abdullah presents a world where beauty and horror coincide. The jinn were feared and hunted because of their immense power, yet the humans exploited that power at every opportunity. Magical relics were a commodity both bargained and sought after, illegally traded or gifted to the sultan. Jinn were murdered with iron swords for their silver blood which miraculously brought nature to barren lands. A luscious garden filled with scented flowers and waterfalls may have been a sight to marvel over but it would signify the death of a jinn. This prejudice against jinn was fuelled as tales of their merciless killing of humans circulated through generations, but what of the humans’ cruelty to jinn? What of their suffering? They are after all living legends, do they not too deserve a place in this world? Abdullah poignantly reflects this notion through the rich and layered history of her world, and her characters show that all is not as history tells and there are some who sympathise.
Loulie al-Nazari, being one. Her entire tribe murdered, she was left as the sole survivor amidst all the bloodshed. Yet it was a jinn who saved her. Qadir’s destiny leads him to find Loulie, cowering and clutching desperately to her father’s mysterious compass, and from that moment their lives become entwined. Loulie and Qadir’s relationship is beautiful, these are two people who essentially are lost, they run from their past in the hopes of escaping the pain, escaping their memories. Loulie gives Qadir a purpose in life, to protect her and guide her, and in turn Qadir gives her a purpose too, for the compass leads them to jinn relics, which turns our Loulie into The Midnight Merchant. Facing your past takes courage and through the course of the novel Qadir and Loulie both have to take this journey. Abdullah shows us that strength comes in many forms, and sometimes relying on others to help you, being able to show your emotions and finding a purpose in life when you’ve lost all takes a significant amount of courage. Female characters do not always have to have physical strength to be strong, sometimes admitting your vulnerabilities is a strength all on its own and I truly resonated with this. Loulie and Qadir depend upon each other, they have a truly endearing father daughter-esque relationship.
“Some things are out of our control. You know that just as well as I. All we can do is make choices based on the cards fate deals us. But so long as fate allows me to stay with you, I will not leave you, Loulie. That is a promise.”
Having said that, if you’re looking for feisty female warriors, well Abdullah has us covered here too. Aisha bint Louas is one of Prince Omar’s, the sultan’s oldest son, Forty Thieves. Having witnessed her family killed by a jinn, her hatred for them has festered, it has boiled to the point where revenge is all she can see. It is this hatred which drives Aisha to be a fearless jinn hunter, to dive head first into any danger, to let her knives carve through every jinn who dare face her. Pure rage can only get you so far though, and as much as she would rather close herself off from others, to forsake morals, to never trust, she begins to learn not everyone is an enemy to defeat. Sometimes tough choices are to be made in order to survive. Which is essentially what Aisha is, a survivor.
The notion of identity is one of the central themes explored throughout The Stardust Thief as the characters all go by various names with differentiating personas. It is perhaps Mazen though who seeks his identity the most as his entire life he has been sheltered, unlike the others. The sultan, his overbearing father, all but keeps Mazen a prisoner within the palace; it may be a luxurious place to be kept in, but as Mazen himself states it is nothing more than a ‘gilded cage’. Resorting to sneaking out, Mazen roams the streets of Madinne in search of some freedom and of his beloved storytellers who remind him much of his late mother, Shafia. Though as events escalate for Mazen, he may just regret ever wishing to be free of his confinement. Throughout the novel Mazen is forced to face who he really is—is he gentle bookish Mazen, a coward who runs from danger, who hides in the shadows, or is he someone who faces his fears to save others? Or could he follow his heart and be the storyteller who enchants an audience with his mother’s tales and his own? Whatever Mazen was and whatever doubts he harboured, I felt he proved he was anything but inconsequential.
“Adrenaline pushed him forward, through the trees with twisted, sharpened branches and past the skirmishes between the living and the dead. Every fight was a desperate clash; the living fought to stay alive while the dead single-mindedly sought to kill.”
Abdullah ultimately celebrates the love of storytelling, particularly the tradition of oral storytelling. Throughout the novel there are interludes where characters will share stories of jinn kings, of legendary figures, and magical relics. She injects a deep-seated layer of history, culture and mythology to her worldbuilding with an enchanting flair. The Stardust Thief is heavily inspired by One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), a collection of folklore from Arab and Middle-Eastern culture. We see parallels between the sultan and his storytelling wife Shafia, and through Omar’s Forty Thieves, and the various mythological beings; however, Abdullah adds her own twist. She illustrates that the art of storytelling has its flaws, as over generations those stories change, they become more exaggerated or altered to incorporate people’s prejudices. To counter this Abdullah offers us visions and memories which collide and seem disjointed at first, but she cleverly builds a tapestry to reveal the truth behind the myth.
At its heart The Stardust Thief is a magical tale of unlikely heroes and thrilling quests, of chaos and bloodshed, of love and loss, all told through Abdullah’s dreamy prose. This is a book where everyone has a story to tell but the truth may dispel the very illusion that has been believed for centuries.
“Some people hide their scars; I prefer to wear mine like badges. They remind me of everything I survived, and of who it is I must seek revenge against.”
ARC provided by Nazia at Orbit Books in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy! All quotes used are taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
The Stardust Thief is out 19th May but you can pre-order here: