The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah is a fascinating tale Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights. It feels like a melding of traditional oral storytelling and modern epic fantasy to create a very unique product. The first part of The Sandsea Trilogy, The Stardust Thief tells a tale resembling a Matryoshka doll, with several substories cleverly contained inside its pages. The book also does a beautiful job of physically feeling like a collection of stories with page and font style-shifting as you duck and weave in and out of narratives. But, with all of these nested tales, what is the collective story about, and does it come together in a cohesive narrative?
Thief draws its roots from the classic hero’s journey, with some slight twists. Our adventuring party is made up of four individuals, three of which are POVs in the narrative. First, we have Loulie and her non-POV jinn bodyguard Qadir. They collectively are the midnight merchant, a legendary magic hunter duo that finds lost jinn relics for a price. Their world is one in which humans and jinn are mortal enemies and humans hunt jinn for the restorative properties of their blood. When the sultan of the lands decides to try and end all jinn kind with a legendary lost jinn artifact, he blackmails the midnight merchant to use their specialized skills to hunt it down for him. Accompanying them on this quest are our other two protagonists: Mazen, the sultan’s youngest son and a notorious bookworm who has barely left the walls of the palace his entire life. Then there is Aisha, a celebrated warrior of the kingdom who serves under Mazen’s older brother (Crown prince Omar, who we will come back to) who is going as Mazen’s bodyguard. This quartet sets out to find the legendary artifact on a magical journey filled with danger, discovery, and destiny.
There are a ton of positives about this book and only a couple of issues, making it one of the strongest debuts of the year. Thief has a vibrant and lore-packed world that is populated by interesting and mysterious figures to explore. So much of this book thematically revolves around the idea of discovery and adventure, and the plot and world-building perfectly match that vibe. As I mentioned in the intro, the book has nested stories inside it that create a cool unique sense of storytelling. Occasionally, characters will bump into something strange and magical in the world and recall a legend that has some relevance. When this happens, the book will shift style, tone, and formatting to explore said legend to give clues about current mysteries. It is very evocative of oral storytelling and does a lot to find the middle ground between the two styles. The story always feels whimsical and unconstrained by hard systems and exacting facts, but it also still feels very substantive and focused with a devotion to character development.
The characters in general are fantastic, but it is here (among all the positives) that I encountered my two big issues with the novel. All four of our questers, and the supporting cast, are very well defined with interesting personalities that are easy to like. The first issue of the book is that at the start of the story, they each have a reputation for greatness that feels very unearned and undercuts their story salience. The Mightnight Merchant is said to be regaled throughout all the land as this expert on magic, but we are only treated to very cursory examples of this and Loulie doesn’t quite feel like a legendary treasure hunter would to me. Aisha seems a little underwhelming for her deadly reputation, and Mazen’s reputed intelligence and cunning are surprisingly absent. However, by the end of the book I absolutely think that each of them grew into these reputations in full and came to embody their status. In the intro sections of the story, it can just feel a little bit like a cart-before-horse situation.
The second issue with the characters is very strange, marking the first time I have encountered something like this. The issue is that of these three protagonists, none of them actually feel like the center of the story; that honor goes to the aforementioned crown prince Omar, who remains behind the scenes being shady the entire book. Omar feels like the only character with real agency in the book, and his actions are the ones that create the paths that everyone else follows. Other characters are either in situations because Omar placed them there, there to carry out Omar’s will, or are pursuing Omar’s goals over their own. Even the title of the book, The Stardust Thief, is actually Omar’s moniker among the people for his penchant to hunt jinn relentlessly and bathe in their silver sparkly blood.
Omar is a great character, and I don’t necessarily dislike him being the center of this story, but it is weird how much time he spends off-page when everything at the end of the day is about him. Maybe that was supposed to be a twist, but it is extremely evident at every step this story takes. That being said, Omar is a fantastic boogeyman in the shadows who does a great job at having nebulous goals, allegiances, and moral standing the entire book.
The Stardust Thief is a unique debut that melds many types of stories into an unforgettable quest for lost magic with a quirky set of adventures. The world and lore of Abdullah’s creation beg to be explored and Thief only feels like the tip of the sandberg. The first book was a lot of fun and I look forward to seeing where this story goes next.
Rating: The Stardust Thief – 8.0/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.