by Chelsea Abdullah
Series: The Sandsea Trilogy #1
Publication Date: May 17, 2022
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Neither here nor there, but long ago…
Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.
With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.
Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights, The Stardust Thief weaves the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp.
Wow. This book absolutely knocked my socks off. Much as you’d expect from a book loosely based on 1001 Nights, it’s a story about stories, about the stories we tell about ourselves and how they can constrain us or free us.
Loulie survived the attack that killed the rest of her tribe, and with the help of her jinn friend Qadir, has risen to become the Night Merchant, the mysterious seller of jinn relics. When the sultan summons her and commands her to go on a quest to retrieve perhaps the most dangerous relic of all, she has no choice but to agree. Accompanied by Omar, the king’s oldest son, and Aisha, one of his thieves, she must journey to the Sandsea. But much like mirages in the desert, things aren’t what they seem. Omar has blackmailed his younger half-brother Mazen into taking his place. And the relic may not be as dangerous as something already travelling with them….
“You worry worse than my mother did.” She grabbed the lantern from him.
Qadir sighed. “You have self-destructive tendencies; I have to worry.”
The story is told from three points of view: Loulie, Mazen and Aisha. Loulie’s tribe was killed by humans, and it was Qadir who saved her and has protected her ever since, so she especially doesn’t believe the anti-jinn propaganda espoused by the sultan and most people. The last thing she wants to do is give more power to him, but what else can she do but go along and hope for a chance to escape? The relationship between Loulie and Qadir was just *chef’s kiss*. They’re family, albeit one brought together by a relic and lots of blood and fire. To the outside world, he’s just her bodyguard, but in reality he’s her best friend and protector. Qadir (and a magical compass relic) help Loulie find relics, and Loulie gives Qadir a purpose in life. Their lives are intertwined, sometimes to Loulie’s resentment, as she thinks being strong means she needs to stand on her own with no help. This makes her reckless at times, to everyone’s detriment. But the journey they’re on – and the secrets they uncover – help her learn that being vulnerable and trusting others is not the weakness she initially assumes.
“A thief steals lives. They do not have their life stolen from them.”
Like Loulie, Aisha was the sole survivor of an attack, though her family was killed by jinn. Omar’s given her a chance at the thing she wants most – revenge against all jinn by becoming a jinn hunter and one of his famous forty thieves. While Loulie had Qadir, Aisha had no one, so she knows what it’s like to have to survive on your own at all costs. She’s all vengeance and sharp edges and scorn, especially for the princeling she’s being forced to guard.
“It didn’t matter that he was a coward. Cowards knew how to flee and hide, and that was good enough.”
Mazen, the second son, inherited his mother’s love for storytelling, as well as a longing for adventure. His father keeps him locked up in the palace, so it’s only through small trips to the city that he gets to experience the world. Omar’s demand that he take his place on the treasure hunt sounds like a dream come true… for a few hours. Mazen, to put it mildly, is a cinnamon roll, gentle and sheltered, one who struggles to reconcile his love for his father with the fact that his father is a cold-blooded murderer. Long days on horseback don’t suit him, let along attacks by ghouls. Traumatized by a jinn possession, he’s afraid and insecure, but when push comes to shove, perhaps his love of storytelling and his tendency to stay in the background is not as inconsequential as he thinks. What is power, after all, but being able to tell your own story?
The world building is amazing and immersive. It feels funny describing a book as “lush” when a good deal of it happens in the desert, but that’s the first world that comes to mind. Most of the world is desert, with areas of greenery coming as a result of violence. Wherever jinn blood falls on the ground, nature grows, from grass to trees to springs, which means that jinn hunters tend to drain their prey of blood, sometimes before killing them. The characters, especially Loulie, never fail to remind us that the lush green spaces are both beautiful and the result of someone’s painful death. The plot is delightful as well, playing with the theme of stories, about how a story can change from teller to teller and still be true. In the book, everyone has secrets, everyone is lying about something, but which of the stories they tell define them? And what does it mean to be strong? There are some truly delightful twists that had me gasping out loud – not to mention all the times I screamed “AISHA WTF” or “MAZEN NO” at my ereader.
“If there is to be only one more tale tonight, let it be the one about the storyteller who changed her fate with her fables. Let it be a story about stories and the power they have to sway mortal hearts.”
Overall, I can’t wait for the next book in the trilogy! While the ending is satisfactory, it’s still a bit of a cliffhanger, and all I know is that I want more of the characters I’ve grown to love!