If anyone cares about my absence the past week, I went to beautiful Berks County in Pennsylvania. It's increasingly good to get away from the Rock (Staten Island) and breathe less car pollution. I was able to catch up on some planned reading for future reviews so I got that going for me too. On the way home we took a detour and visited the Brandywine Battlefield. Good times.
I'm definitely coming to the party late in regards to the swords and sorcery writing of Black Gate's managing editor, Howard Andrew Jones. Last summer, when I started making this blog a real and regular thing Jones' first novel about the scholar Dabir and swordsman Asim, "The Desert of Souls", was getting very favorable notices across the fantasy ghettos of the blogosphere and equally good reviews in the wider world. It had favorable blurbs from some of my favorite writers like Glen Cook. So what took me till now to actually read any of his work? I mean S&S adventure set during the Abbasid Caliphate and in spectacular, ancient Mosul sounds pretty dang exciting, doesn't it?
Well, a big reason is, I'm cheap (the other reasons are that I have a lot of stuff on the to-be-read pile and I'm lazy). It's a large component of why I buy used (and non-collectible) copies of of books and e-books. When I buy e-books, I can't help but want them to be cheaper than what I'd pay for a hard copy. When a publisher sets a price above Amazon's ceiling of $9.99 I need to know what I'm getting is going to be worth my money. "Desert of Souls" was selling for $12.99 (with the sequel, "The Bones of the Old Ones", available for pre-order, they've dropped it to $9.99) I imagine you're saying out loud right now, "C''mon, it's only a couple of bucks, ya' tightwad!" You're right, I know that. I also want authors like Jones to make as much money as they can so they can keep going creating tales of adventure so people like me can keep reading them. But I'm cheap and I don't make the sorts of impulse book buys as I did even five years ago. Since I hadn't read anything by him I just couldn't bring myself to press that 1-click purchase button.
Well, in this modern age the publishers have tools at their disposal to lure the likes penny-pinching readers like me into their ink-stained clutches. They offer us deals too good to refuse by making shorter works or collections available for low prices to let you see if you have a taste for someone's writing. In Jones' case it's "The Waters of Eternity" for all of $2.99. It collects most of the short stories about Dabir and Asim along with the first chapter of "The Desert of Souls". One was left out because it forms part of "The Desert of Souls", one to be included in a Rogue Blades collection, and the third, the first he wrote, "An Audience with the King" is apparently too goofy (his word) for inclusion.
So, with all that blathering said, last week I finally took the couple of hours I needed to read "The Waters of Eternity". It's good, roots S&S with plenty of action, monsters, and colorful settings. The heroes are Dabir, a scholar of great intellect and reputation as well as confidant and agent of the caliph, Harun al-Rashid, and Asim, a swordsman of skill and cunning. Asim also serves as the narrator of the book's six stories.
The book opens with Asim looking back to his youth and his friendship with Dabir. It also establishes the "story-ness" of the book. These are tales being told to an audience. Asim describes with pride the way he once held audiences enthralled with his recounting of his and Dabir's adventures. To ensure that memories of those times don't vanish with his death he has finally taken to writing them down. They're written as if being told to us while sitting around at his feet. In the afterword Jones states the stories are presented as Asim might have told them, not in chronological order. Asim's voice is strong, giving us his thoughts and insights into Dabir's actions. Jones provides just enough description of places and people to keep us from getting lost in the unknown place the early Islamic but still maintain an exotic aura.
The stories themselves are the small adventures of the heroes while not out "racing to the world's far corners to save the caliphate". Some, like the opener "The Thief of Hearts" and "The Slayer's Tread", are monster tales. The former also introduces the reader to Dabir's detective talents as he follows the clues left at a horrific murder scene back to the crime's origins and perpetrator. Most of the remaining stories, "Sight of Vengeance", "Servant of Iblis" and "Marked Man" in particular, are also detective tales. Like Watson, Asim stands in for the reader, walking a step or two behind, following Dabir as he follows the clues to a solution. Along the way are alchemists, ghouls, wicked Greeks and missing organs. In other words, good stuff.
"The Waters of Eternity" is the most surprising and moving story. To save a governor's dying daughter, Dabir and Asim accompany a troop of soldiers on an arduous search of the waters of the title. Reputed to be a spring capable of healing and sustaining life Dabir reluctantly agrees. The trek is, as predicted, terrible and it encompasses conflict and dark discoveries. I was as startled at how the story unfolded as was Asim.
This is really good historical fantasy storytelling written in a vibrant, straight ahead manner. In this age of Tolkien-clones and sad, grimdark worlds, Jones gives us his own take on a classic type of adventure duo in a glittering world of caliphs, viziers, efrits and ghouls. His clear love and knowledge of the culture and its people prevents Dabir and Asim from being mere cardboard characters flitting about in a world of the worst cliches of Orientalism. The stories left me hungry for more, curious about how the companions first met Acteon the Greek or came to serve the caliph. The stories are swift and surefooted and the mysteries are engrossing. Dabir and Asim would fit quite well into an anthology edited by Lin Carter or Andrew Offutt.
Based on these stories I'm a fan. As I started writing this review I finally clicked that 1-click button and downloaded "The Desert of Souls" and later I'll be buying "The Bones of the Old Ones". I keep saying, it really is a great time to be a fan of S&S.