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Book Review: The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

Book Review: The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

Fantasy fans searching for their next read need look no further than Chelsea Abdullahs The Stardust Thief. Stepping seamlessly into the gaps in the publishing market left by the end of fantasy series like Sabaa Tahirs Ember Quartet and S K Chakrabortys The Daevabad Trilogy, The Stardust Thief is epic fantasy fiction at its finest, drawing inspiration from the stories in One Thousand and One Nights to create a rich, evocative and exquisitely detailed world of perilous quests, magical relics and legendary creatures that’s as expansive as it is captivating.

Abdullah’s novel, the first in a planned trilogy, takes place in a world of enchantment, where lofty royals rule from dazzling palaces and lounge in beautiful oases created by spilt jinn blood, where mythical creatures lie in wait in the sun-dazzled desert and ancient ruins contain dangerous relics and darker mysteries. It’s a world where stories, myths and legends are wrapped in history and truth and it’s this that sets the stage for the adventure that The Stardust Trilogy’s heroes find themselves on.

First there’s Loulie al-Nazari, otherwise known as the Midnight Merchant, a criminal known for her ability to track down illegal magical relics before selling them to curious traders under the watchful eye of her jinn bodyguard Qadir. Meanwhile, Prince Mazen is the son of the powerful sultan and wants nothing more than to escape the palace and spend time among the people of his city, listening to the stories of the great storytellers who pass through Madinne. It’s on one of these illicit trips outside the palace that Mazen finds himself entranced by a beautiful jinn and when Loulie saves his life, she draws the attention of the sultan himself and soon finds herself being forced to accept a quest that will take her to the heart of the Sandsea to find an ancient, magical lamp.

With no other choice, Loulie and Qadir prepare for their perilous journey, joined by the sultan’s oldest son Prince Omar, the King of the Forty Thieves, and Aisha al-Bint, his most trusted warrior-thief, both ruthless hunters determined to restore nature to the world by annihilating all jinn. Together, the group must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past, all while keeping hold of their own secrets, as they set out to find the artefact. But in a world where story is reality and illusions can be truth, Loulie soon discovers everything – including her past, her magic and her enemy – is not what it seems.

Let us speak of lies and truths, and of the story hidden between them.”

As the synopsis makes clear, The Stardust Thief is a rich, layered narrative populated by complex characters and driven by stories, creating an impressive web of places, people and magic that are both real and the subject of legend, and all of which are constantly in dialogue with one another too. On paper, it sounds like the kind of ambitious fantasy novel that is setting up an intimidating read, but Abdullah has crafted her story with such care that The Stardust Thief unfolds beautifully, transporting the reader to this new fantasy world with ease.

Between the three points of view, the characters’ different walks of life and the different stories they’ve seen, been told and grew up believing, Abdullah carefully builds her world through her characters’ experiences, memories and dialogue – and all blessedly free of the dreaded info-dump too. It’s the kind of world-building that feels natural, effortless and instantly spellbinding, so much so that even with the near-500 page word count it still feels like it’s over too quickly.

It helps, too, that the characters themselves are brought to life so vividly, with each of their journeys lined with peril, heartbreak and believable motivations. Loulie struggles with a tragic event in her past, torn between seeking vengeance or putting it behind her, and she questions the role she plays in her own story too, especially after learning more about Qadir and his own history. The idea of identity is continued in Aisha and Mazen’s stories too, with Aisha left reconsidering the position she has within the Forty Thieves, while Mazen grapples with the role he plays within his family as well as learning just who exactly he could be – or who he has to be – when he’s without them. Each of their stories is given the attention and time it needs to grow and develop, so that where they each end up at the end of the novel feels truly earned and natural.

For all The Stardust Thief’s main narrative is influenced by ancient magic, power-hungry royals, secrets and betrayals, this novel is primarily a quest narrative through and through. If there is a romance story brewing here, there are only hints of it for now (with the teasing impression that this trilogy is establishing the groundwork for the slowest of slow burn romances), but by and large this novel focuses on the journey, and in the characters unravelling all the stories of their world to parse the fact from the fiction. In this sense, The Stardust Thief is a story lover’s dream and it all makes for a brilliant reading experience, with plenty of stories within stories and endless layers for readers to discover.

The Stardust Thief is a spectacular read and it’s one that’s so accomplished it’s difficult to believe that it’s a debut. Yet there’s no denying that this is one sweeping adventure that’s sure to enchant readers the world over. If this is what Abdullah has to offer in her first book, I cannot wait to see what the rest of the Sandsea trilogy has in store.

★★★★★

The Stardust Thief is published by Orbit on 19 May 2022

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