If you are a fan of Harold Lamb, Howard Andrew Jones should be a familiar name. Jones is the editor of the Bison Book series of Harold Lamb’s adventure tales of Cossacks, Crusaders, Mongols, Rajputs, and all manner of swashbucklers. One of the hallmarks of Lamb’s fiction is his sharply drawn historical Asian settings. As an author Jones follows in that tradition while treating his readers to a fantasy of generous proportions.
Desert of Souls’s narrator is Asim, a doughty warrior in Sword & Sorcery tradition. Asim’s comrade is Dabir, a scholar of arcane knowledge. A chance encounter in the Baghdad’s marketplace sends them on a quest for a lost city in order to prevent a wizard from utilizing the dangerous magical secrets hidden there.
Desert of Souls is a novel that isn’t exactly easily classified. It is a fantasy that takes its inspiration from the classic Arabian Nights, yet it is not a naïve fantasy for children that one might expect from source material that has been so relentlessly tamed and sugar-coated. Rather Jones crafts his own characters while staying true to the setting. Asim and Dabir serve in the household of Jaffar the Barmecide, the historical wazir of Harun al-Rashid (763-806) the third Abbasid caliph in Baghdad’s Golden Age. If Desert of Souls is rooted in history and traditional legend, it flowers in a modern manner. Betrayal and mistrust are at the heart of all relationships ever striving with friendship and loyalty. It is an if Jones layered in a 1950s noir crime film with the hard-charging adventure. Of course the old Arab storytellers understood human frailty very well, the original Arabian Nights are thick with every species of treachery, oppression, and kanvery ever practiced. The cinematic comparisons don’t end just there, Desert of Souls has the kind of wide-screen cinematic destruction that we expect from a good disaster movie. Finally, there is an echo of the 21st century in Desert of Souls, just as in the current world of terrorism and political violence, so too in Jones's tale personal motives—revenge, lust for power—mingle with religious and ethnic fanaticism.
Desert of Souls has a lot to offer, characters with depth, a setting that is at once believably real and filled with wonders, fast-paced adventure, and excellent story telling.