‘The Stardust Thief’ is an enjoyable fantasy debut inspired by tales from ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, but one that lacks a little sparkle. Many fans of action-driven fantasy will likely love it, but for those who appreciate more character connection it may fall slightly short.
Loulie Al-Nazari has crafted her reputation as the Midnight Merchant – a purveyor of illegal magical artifacts, aided by a mysterious bodyguard. However, when she breaks her routine to save the life of a simple civilian, he turns out to secretly be a prince – and now Loulie has drawn the attention of his father, the Sultan, who blackmails her into a dangerous quest to track down the most powerful of all magical artifacts – a magical lamp. Accompanied by the prince and one of his legendary Forty Thieves – and of course her bodyguard – Loulie sets off on a journey beset by vengeful jinn, killers from her mysterious past, ghouls, and deadly secrets. Loulie soon discovers that nothing is as it seems, and she must decide who to become in this strange new reality.
The story alternates between three main perspectives – Loulie, Prince Mazen, and Aisha bint Louas of the Forty Thieves. Of these, Mazen is ultimately the most engaging. A kindhearted prince who much prefers telling stories to a crown, he is utterly out of place in his cutthroat family. His family despises him for his cowardice, and everyone is convinced he must have ulterior motives. Mazen struggles with identity, with marrying his desires with what he ultimately has to be as a royal, and with understanding how everyone else is using him for their own gain. His naivety can be challenging to read, but he has a huge amount of growth and is easy to sympathise with and care for. Seeing him in his element telling stories is one of thr strongest part of the novel, which at its heart is an ode to the tradition of storytelling.
Both Loulie and Aisha are strong, determined female protagonists, fighters at heart and convinced that their way of seeing the world is the right one. Their beliefs and loyalties are polar opposites, but in every other way they’re immensely similar. The main difference is that Loulie has someone she can trust – her bodyguard, Qadir – whereas Aisha has been burned too many times and trusts no-one. Their arcs thus run in inverse directions – Loulie’s trust in Qadir is shaken as illusions are stripped away and revelations come to light, and Aisha is forced to compromise and let others in in order to survive. The contrast is done well, although ultimately neither character’s psychology is delved into in the depths it could be.
The plot is fast paced, with regular twists and turns. Those familar with ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ will appreciate the number of references and story elements blended in, but there’s also political scheming, betrayal, and other fresh elements to keep this a unique story.
The primary weakness is a superficiality to the writing. Abdullah has created a strong world, intriguing characters, and a solid plot, but at no point do the reader and characters feel fully connected, lessening the impact of everything that happens to them. This slightly detached prose is common in older myths and fairytales and may be a deliberate choice, but it doesn’t quite work here. Fans of plot driven rather than character driven fantasy will probably engage much more with it as a story.
Overall, ‘The Stardust Thief’ is a solid debut with plenty of potential, but one that lacks the character connection to fully convince fans of character-driven fantasy. Recommended for fans of Arabic-inspired stories, action-packed fantasy, and strong female characters.
Thanks to Orbit Books for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Orbit
Hardback: 17th May 2022