Howard Andrew Jones’ superb debut is no mirage
“The parrot lay on the floor of his cage, one claw thrust stiffly toward the tiny wooden swing suspended above him. The black olive clenched in his beak was the definitive sign that Pago was a corpse, for while he had fooled us all by playing dead in the past, he had never failed to consume an olive.”
In the space of the first two sentences of his new book, The Desert of Souls, Howard Andrew Jones has captured the reader. By the end of the first page—and in my case, the first paragraph—the crisp, evocative imagery has gripped one’s attention as tightly as the black olive in the beak of the recently departed Pago. Much to its author’s credit, that grip only tightens in the pages that follow.
The Desert of Souls has been described as Sherlock Holmes meets the Arabian Nights meets Robert E. Howard. The comparisons are apt, and in the case of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous duo, overt. The martially adept Captain Asim partners with the erudite Dabir, a scholar whose principle weapons are his piercing intelligence and keen observations. (Like Doyle’s Watson, Asim serves as the story’s narrator and his friend’s biographer.) Fantastic adventure ensues. Though this is only the first book, the tandem of Asim and Dabir shows great promise to be worthy of the “great fictional duos” mantle worn by the likes of Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Bilbo and Gandalf, and even Kirk and Spock.
The rich tapestry of 8th-century Baghdad recalls some of Scheherazade’s most engaging tales, and the supernatural horrors faced by Asim and Dabir during the course of their adventures could just as easily have menaced the likes of Conan, Solomon Kane or Bran Mak Morn. The engaging pulpiness of Jones’ book is not surprising, given the author is himself “an acknowledged expert on fiction writer Harold Lamb.” Lamb, a contemporary of Howard and horror godfather H.P. Lovecraft, penned tales of the Crusades and the Far East for Adventure, one of the most critically acclaimed magazines of the pulp era.
But though comparisons to the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert E. Howard are merited due to plot and authorial provenance, there’s an even more fundamental similarity. At its heart, Jones’ work is a great read—a page-turner in its purest form. As such, The Desert of Souls is a powerful place—it can wreck sleeping schedules, cause chores to be neglected and, best of all, make one yearn for the next installment.