REVIEW: THE STARDUST THEIF
Neither here nor there, but long ago...
I don't often read new releases (mostly because I am always behind the times with my reading), but this is one that sounded particularly interesting to me. I would not have been able to fit it into my physical or eBook reading, but was able to sneak it in via Audible and am glad that I did.
HOW I RATED IT
4/5 THE STARDUST THEIF is a breakout new release for good reason and the impressive voice talents that support the audiobook largely overshadowed certain aspects of the writing that I felt to be odd or annoying.
As is typical with a lot of what I read last year, this is a story that switches between three main perspectives (not sure if this reflects market trends or just my personal tastes). Loulie/Layla is a famed seller of magical items (relics) who is dubbed "The Midnight Merchant." Mazen is the youngest son of a Sultan and feels stifled by being his father's favorite. Aisha is a brutal assassin who works for Mazen's brother, Omar, as one of his famed "Forty Theives." While none of these characters know each other at the start of the story, they (as well as Loulie's Jinn friend, Qadir) are quickly pulled together on a quest to find a legendary lamp that is said to imprison a Jinn King (a creature that is much more dangerous than Disney's Genie). Seeing these characters interact with each other as well as the various side characters in the story was an absolute treat. There are shades of a couple different love triangles that threaten to rear their ugly head, but fortunately the story never indulges too deeply into this aspect of the characters' arcs. Instead, much of the interpersonal conflict comes from the secrets that they all carry. Some of these are known to the reader and some are not, creating an interesting balance between dramatic irony and genuine surprise. Seeing how various characters handle the truth coming to light about themselves and/or others was a lot of fun and definitely made up for how the plot felt like it meandered at times.
Things start of quite strong with an intriguing tidbit about the history of the Jinn, followed by an intriguing opening chapter with Loulie and Qadir selling their wares to a wealthy merchant. I appreciated how quickly exciting events started to take place as one of Mazen's secret excursions to the market takes a deadly turn and we are immediately clued into Omar's scheming thanks to Aisha's perspective. This opening act is probably one of the strongest I have read in a long time, but I had a feeling things might slow down a bit once the central quest is delivered to our main characters. As much as I like tales like Homer's ODYSSEY, I generally prefer stories that don't have too many pitstops along the way to the main goal. Part of the reason something like the ODYSSEY or LORD OF THE RINGS works for me in this instance is that reaching Odysseus's home or destroying the One Ring at Mount Doom is the end destination, whereas Loulie and Co.'s mission to secure the Magic Lamp felt more like a fetch quest that takes an entire book to simply arrive at the object of interest. When I got into the final 2 hours of the story, I thought for sure that it would just end with many things unresolved and while there is a bit of a cliffhanger, I actually felt like there was an avalanche of events that suddenly erupted in the books final chapters which left me feeling more satisfied than I thought I would. I did also feel like Abdulla did a great job of making each stop along the journey feel meaningful in some way and connect back to the story's conclusion (which made me appreciate these moments a lot more in retrospect).
It wasn't particularly obvious to me whether this story is set in a real part of the world, though some of the major cities are named. A Google search suggests that it is at least inspired by Kuwait, but I think it was intentional that this felt more like an enchanting fantasy world than one that is firmly grounded in reality. I am not generally a fan of stories that take place in desert planets/biomes, but the sands of this world are so filled with magic and wonder that I never found myself growing bored of it. Bustling cities and ancient ruins offer some variety as well as the heroes traverse the unforgiving, dusty landscape. There is also the unseen kingdom of the Jinn which adds yet another layer of intrigue to the setting. Despite the expansiveness of this journey, I felt as though we really only got to see a small portion of what Abdullah has to offer with the world she's constructed and I look forward to seeing where else this trilogy will take readers.
This is by far one of the most stunning audio productions I will probably ever enjoy. Each main character is voiced by their own narrator who expertly drew me into that perspective and made the words spring to life in my mind's eye. I have enjoyed some pretty high quality audiobooks so far, but this really just blew me away and is an easy 5/5 performance. The narration was so good, that the more repetitive and annoying elements of the prose barely even bothered me. It was also cool to hear what I assume is the correct pronunciation of words from this region of the world (don't worry about needing Google Translate or anything, it is easy enough to discern their meaning based on the context that they are used in). That said, I felt like Qadir's name is said differently by all of the narrators which bothered me somewhat and left me wondering how it is actually pronounced. Other than this one, petty gripe, I found this to be a flawless rendition and would highly recommend experiencing the story in this format.
While it is not the smoothest or most original read of all time, I thoroughly enjoyed this enchanting adventure across the sands and very much look forward to the next installment in this series.
(+) A spellbinding performance from three different voice actors
(+) A fun mix of classical and modern storytelling
(+) Draws heavily from middle eastern folklore
(+) Great characters with interesting dynamics
(-) Some of the twists were a little obvious and it wasn't clear if that was intentional
(-) Some of the prose had redundant phrases (overexplaining) and the plot does meander quite a bit
(-) Swear words felt odd and out of place (also made me question if this is a YA or Adult novel since the writing felt distinctly YA aside from the violence and strong language)