Monday, April 4, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Desert of Souls

I make no bones about the fact that, with very few exceptions, I don't read contemporary fantasy. I'm not a fan of either doorstops masquerading as novels or of nihilism masquerading as "realism," to name but two trends in fantasy literature since the 1980s. Likewise, I prefer self-contained adventure stories to interminably epic series -- little wonder then that most of my fantasy reading these days is confined to tales largely written before I was born.

Every now and again, though, I come across a contemporary fantasy work that bucks these trends. Howard Andrew Jones's debut novel, The Desert of Souls, is such a one. Set in 8th century Baghdad, it presents itself as a first-person account by Asim, the captain of the guard of the vizier Jaffar, of the adventure he has following the death of his master's beloved parrot. In an effort to cheer up Jaffar, Asim suggests that the nobleman disguise himself and venture forth into Baghdad to see its sights and thus have a grand story to share with the caliph when returns to the city, thereby earning favor in his eyes. Jaffar agrees to his captain's plan, bringing the soldier along with him, as well as the scholar Dabir, who serves as tutor to his niece, Sabirah.

While wandering through the streets of Baghdad, the trio comes to the shop of an old woman reputed to be able to predict the future. At their urging, the woman reads each of their fates. To Dabir, she says:
"You shall be known far and wide as a slayer of monsters and protector of the caliphate. Fame will go before and after you; heroes shall listen to tell of your exploits with envious ears."
To Asim, she says:
"Your bravery will not be unknown, but in later days it will grow when you take up the difficult weapons of pen and parchment; the fruits of these labors shall carry your name down the ages."
To Jaffar, she says:
"High have you risen and higher still shall you rise, until you lose your head when you dare to love a woman beyond your station. Your master will weep, but he shall not spare you."
While all three men stand in shock at the future the old woman has prophesied for them, she adds:
"You stand at a juncture," the woman said to all of us. "If you delay, if you do not rise and take immediately to the street, none of this shall come to pass, and your lives shall be forgotten in the greater misery that shall follow."
Believing the woman to have been, at best, mistaken in her auguries and, at worst, a fraud, the three companions leave her shop, only to stumble into a man bleeding in the street outside, seemingly the victim of theft. It is here that the story of The Desert of Souls begins in earnest and it's a story whose pace never slackens and that engaged my interest for the entirety of its 305 pages.

Yes, 305 pages. The Desert of Souls has to be one of the most lean fantasy novels I've seen published in recent years, but that leanness is not due to a lack of substance. Like the best stories of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, The Desert of Souls wastes no time with extraneous details or self-indulgent digressions, getting straight to the meat of the matter. This is all the more remarkable, because the novel is set in an unfamiliar historical and cultural setting and Jones does a superb job of conveying the differences, both subtle and overt, between 8th century Baghdad and the pseudo-medieval Europe found in so much pulp fantasy. He does a similarly superb job of presenting a riveting plot and compelling characters, most notably Asim and Dabir, an unlikely pair that happily recall Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser while still being very much original creations.

The result is a historical fantasy that skimps neither on the history nor the fantasy. My own knowledge of the Abbasid Caliphate is limited and mostly from the Byzantine side of things, so I appreciated the wealth of information Jones has included about it in his novel without lengthy expository asides. Even moreso than its plot and characters, it is this that makes The Desert of Souls stand out in my mind. Jones has succeeded in transporting the reader to another time and place and never once forgets that, first and foremost, this is an adventure novel, not a history text. There's a humility about the book that only added to the book's numerous charms.

If, like me, you're not especially taken with contemporary fantasy has on offer, you should definitely take a look at The Desert of Souls. It's a fun read very much in the tradition of the best pulp fantasy but with plenty of unique pleasures owing to its historical and cultural setting.

36 comments:

  1. This does sound like an interesting story. I will have to check it out because a new fantasy book that is good will be a breath of fresh air. Not that I mind some of the new books but they tend to be never ending stories that had just one more book to go for the last 3 books.

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  2. You didn't mention the zombie monkies!!!

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  3. self-indulgent digressions

    I have to wonder what constitutes this. The reason I ask is two of my favorite novels of all time are The Celestial Steam Locomotive and Gods of the Greataway which are full of digressions. It is not unusually for a side story lasting one or more chapters to occur involving times, places, and people not involving the main characters. They do tie back to the main tale, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. Regardless they help develop the world of the novel.

    What made them interesting is they seem to me self-consciously modeled on the digressions you see in poems like Beowulf. Yet, Coney handles them deftly and then work to expand the tale instead of distract.

    That said, I just checked Amazon and their page count combined is less than 600 page and memory says there was a lot of white space and moderately large type. They were also very quick reads. I suspect combined in modern paperback form they'd be in the 400 page range tops.

    Is that perhaps the thing that defines self-indulgent: padding that is there to increase size as opposed to increasing story?

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  4. Thank you for recommending this. Almost all of the fantasy I read is by authors who are now deceased, but I am happy to support the efforts of a good living writer who bucks the trends. I'll look for this one.

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  5. What year was this book published?

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  6. I have to point out that Howard Jones is also the editor of the excellent Harold Lamb collections published by Bison Books over the past three or four years. Robert E. Howard modeled his early stories on Lamb's tales in the "Adventure" pulp, and Lamb's stories set in central Asia hold up at least as well as Howard's historicals. Read the first collection, "Wolf of the Steppes," and if you don't order the others before you're halfway through, I'll be very much surprised.

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  7. I have to wonder what constitutes this. The reason.

    I'm thinking primarily of writers afflicted with Tolkien envy, who spend far too much time telling us about the world of their stories than just letting us experience that world. Robert Jordan seemed prone to this, as did David Eddings.

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  8. What year was this book published?

    2011.

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  9. Yes, yes, and yes! HAJ is a wonderful writer and sword-and-sorcery scholar, and a truly decent guy to boot. I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of this book and was utterly charmed. The author pulls off a synthesis of mystery and classic sword-and-sorcery that's just wonderfully impressive.
    There's also an unforced wit to the writing that's all too absent from a lot of fantasy these days - eg, the opening:

    *****
    The parrot lay on the floor of his cage, one claw thrust stiffly toward the tiny wooden swing suspended above him. The black olive clenched in his beak was the definitive sign that Pago was a corpse, for while he had fooled us all by playing dead in the past, he had never failed to consume an olive. To be sure, I nudged the cage. It shook, the swing wobbled, and the bird slid minutely but did not move a single feather of his own accord.

    "He is dead," Jaffar said simply behind me; simply, but with the weight of the universe hung upon the final word.
    *****

    The publisher has posted a free excerpt of the novel here, BTW: http://bit.ly/gpXD8E

    So happy to see James bringing some much-needed attention to this very worthy book. There ARE fantasy writers working today who still prioritize sensawunda and swash-and-buckle, though we aren't necessarily at the top of the bestseller lists.

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  10. following the death of his master's beloved parrot

    So, Jones must not be a big fan of Gilbert Gottfried, hmm?

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  11. Blogger ate my post, so I'll try again.
    The problem isn't length, really, but that stories that could be told in a couple of hundred pages are pushed out to many times that by pointless padding. Jordon used petty character drama; repetitive, non-revelatory dialogue; plot free intrigue and literally hundreds of campfire scenes (Erikson is big on these last two as well). Tolkien used long digressions on the history of the Middle Earth (sorry I'm a huge fan of the Hobbit; I wish I'd never read LoTR. In my opinion, it stole away the delightful wide eyed innocence of its predecessor).
    Anyway, I could go on, but i wont.
    Instead, I'd like to mention some long adventure stories, that get it right- The Three Musketeers; Moby Dick; Vance's Lyonesse trilogy (the first two, anyway) Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.
    Again, the problem isn't length; it is padding for the sake of length.
    Furthermore, I think the audience and publishers are every bit as much to blame as the authors- if not more so.

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  12. @ Aos:

    Moby Dick is a contender for my favorite novel of all time, but kind of an odd choice for 'books free of "unneeded" digressional padding,' ne? I mean, I personally *love* the whale anatomy chapters, etc., but they aren't exactly there to advance the plot...

    "Furthermore, I think the audience and publishers are every bit as much to blame as the authors- if not more so."

    I can vouch for this. My forthcoming novel found a very happy home with DAW Books, but as my agent and I were shopping it, more than one editor thought it 'too short' (@95K words) for epic fantasy. One editor suggested I pad it out with 'lots more description.'

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  13. I can't help being extremely skeptical when I see someone arguing that the fantasy sagas of today have to be that long because "the story just got too big...the author could ONLY write it that way." I believe it's market-driven and FAT books are in and the fatter the better. I just don't care to go along with it.

    I just received my copy of Desert of Souls and I'm looking forward to checking it out!

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  14. "My forthcoming novel found a very happy home with DAW Books, but as my agent and I were shopping it, more than one editor thought it 'too short' (@95K words) for epic fantasy. One editor suggested I pad it out with 'lots more description.'"

    Ha! I got into an argument with an epic fantasy fan in which I said I felt editors and publishers were helping to drive page counts upward and they told me I was full of crap. Now I feel vindicated :)

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  15. @ Saladan Ahmed
    Are you a fast fish or a loose fish? :)
    I love Moby dick as well, especially the cetecean chapters. I don't equate all digression with padding. If it's good, like the cetacean chapters in Moby Dick, it's digression; if it sucks, like the Tar Valon chapter in Jordon, it's padding. I'd go sdo far as to say that the historical stuff in LoTR isn't padding; it's just tedious. However, some folks love that stuff, so I guess it's all subjective. Unless we're talking about 100's of repetitive "campfire scenes" that's just padding.

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  16. Again, the problem isn't length; it is padding for the sake of length.

    You may well be correct. I guess it's just that it's been so long since I've encountered a long fantasy novel where the length didn't seem gratuitous that I have a hard time remembering their existence. Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series consisted of only four books and they were all about 300 pages long. And even The Lord of the Rings, which inspired so much of this nonsense, is only about 1200 pages long in total, which is less than guys like George R. R. Martin manage in a couple of volumes in series running many, many books.

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  17. One editor suggested I pad it out with 'lots more description.'

    Wow, that is so disheartening. I guess my dream of one day being able to write -- gasp! -- fantasy short stories is probably for naught.

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  18. Unless we're talking about 100's of repetitive "campfire scenes" that's just padding.

    I remember talking with the wife of someone involved in a Wheel of Time-related project, who recalled when he husband was re-reading all the books then available in the series and taking notes for this project. One day, he was sitting down and, instead of simply closing the book as he concluded it, he threw it across the room. His wife asked him, "What's wrong?" and he replied, "Nothing happened."

    That's how I feel about far too much modern fantasy.

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  19. @ James, You are correct, I think. I was thinking of books that were long in comparison to the one under discussion in your initial post.
    Personally, I think LoTR would be better if it were about 2/3 as long as it is.
    I should probably move on before the lynch mob forms.

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  20. I should probably move on before the lynch mob forms.

    Nah, a lot of people have issues with the LotR, especially in comparison to The Hobbit and I think there are definitely some fair criticisms to be had of the former. I sometimes say that I think the LotR succeeds in spite of Tolkien's writing rather than because of it and I say this as someone who dearly loves the book.

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  21. Wow, that is so disheartening. I guess my dream of one day being able to write -- gasp! -- fantasy short stories is probably for naught.

    I have a similar fantasy, and i have actually come close to publishing on two occasions, but grad school made it impossible for me to go any further at the time.
    I like to think that the rise of the ereader will somehow usher in a new era of short form S&S. I'm probably wrong, though.

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  22. @ James and Aos:

    *Books* of fantasy short stories are pretty much impossible to sell via traditional publishers. (I *do* think the emergence of the ereader may change this, but we're not there yet.) But there are some great ezines out there that pay pro rate (a whopping 5-7 cents a word!) or close to it for short adventure fantasy fiction. Most offer their fiction to readers for free. A few favorites, starting with the neo-pulpiest and moving toward the quasi-'literary':

    http://www.heroicfantasyquarterly.com/

    http://www.blackgate.com/black-gate-subscriptions/

    http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/

    http://www.fantasy-magazine.com/

    Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a particular favorite of mine, though I'm no doubt biased since they've bought a couple of my stories. BCS and Black Gate are also notable for having serial stories featuring recurring characters, ala Conan or Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser.

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  23. One advantage (for me) of the longer fantasy doorstop is that it lets you give a fantastic world the multiple viewpoints of the classic 19C European novel and/or the Dos Passos inspired 20C American novel. Shorter fantasy tends to focus on a much smaller number of protagonists, providing concentration and speed at the expense of breadth and panorama. So I'm personally happiest when we have a full spectrum of narrative lengths available.

    I suspect the ship has sailed on the short story, though. Online publication certainly gets around a number of the publishing issues that have been killing off the magazine--but online publication also makes it economically viable to publish doorstop novels oneself. SF is pretty much the last bastion of the short story in genre fiction these days (not that fantasy ever really had a comparable environment for short stories at any point in its history; even the fantastic pulps were outnumbered by the SF ones).

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  24. If you want to read reasonably-sized, self-contained fantasy novels, I'd recommend anything by Patricia McKillip. She wrote a trilogy early in her career, but she got better :-)

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  25. I gave up on Jordan when I realized an entire (thick!) book had contained a single plot point.

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  26. "And even The Lord of the Rings, which inspired so much of this nonsense, is only about 1200 pages long in total..."

    And, I believe, actually FIVE books.

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  27. @ Rob: I agree with your first point - I tend to write shorter myself, but I love a good doorstopper when it's done right. If the form enables some horrid excesses, it also absolutely provides a reader access to a panoply of perspectives that shorter/1st person novels just can't replicate.

    I'm not so sure about your second point, though. From a writer's perspective, at least, there are probably more thriving pro-rate fantasy markets than SF ones. And short fantasy fiction is doing better now readership-wise than it was ten years ago, largely because of the internet. But who knows how these things are going to shake out a bit down the line... There's a *lot* of uncertainty in all corners of the biz right now, and even more piss-poor prophesying.

    With apologies for hijacking the thread here, I'd also point folks interested in newer short S&S to the anthology Swords & Dark Magic:

    http://www.amazon.com/Swords-Dark-Magic-Sword-Sorcery/dp/0061723819

    Some great stories in there, some just plain fun ones, only a couple of duds. It's an interesting antho because even 'fatter' writers like Erickson are working in a more muscular form here.

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  28. When I'm not writing Flash Gordon I'm writing Arabian Nights. Will check this out.

    You must know Tim Powers? No, he's not swords and sorcery, but he's concise and inventive and literate and fun.

    The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Not up there
    with Borges or Calvino's Invisible Cities but brilliant shorts verging on microfiction.

    And "digressions" are the poetry of Moby Dick. The monomaniacal revenge bit I consider pretty much a frame story.

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  29. "And "digressions" are the poetry of Moby Dick."

    Couldn't agree more - I wish to God we lived in a world where one could write a beautifully, intentionally digressional (rather than padded) fat fantasy novel and have it sell.

    FWIW, to bring this thread full-circle to the questions of gaming and neo-S&S, Howard Andrew Jones has also just written a well-received Pathfinder tie-in novel. Haven't read it myself, but it looks like it could be a fun beach read:

    http://www.amazon.com/Pathfinder-Tales-Howard-Andrew-Jones/dp/1601252919

    Ok, now I shall refrain from further linkspam

    ::slaps own wrist::

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  30. @Saladin: I will of course bow to your greater experience in the area of the short fiction market these days. The Swords & Dark Magic anthology is indeed a nice piece of work (with Erikson's story being one of my favorites in the collection--along with Abercrombie's).

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  31. I have to check this book out. Sounds all kinds of interesting. Thanks for the heads up sir!

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  32. I had the opportunity to read HAJ's story in draft, and it is indeed amazing! His prose is lean without being sparse, and in that he very much reminds me of REH at his best. Go, buy a copy! :)

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  33. You must know Tim Powers? No, he's not swords and sorcery, but he's concise and inventive and literate and fun.

    I do and I like him very much. There are definitely some Powers-eseque turns in my current D&D campaign setting, but, for whatever reason, I tend not to think of him as a fantasy writer and so often forget to mention him.

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  34. I have that Pathfinder Tales book on my shelf in my queue. If it turns out well, I'll look into this other one as well.

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