The Desert of Souls, Howard Andrew Jones’ debut novel, and The Bones of the Old Ones, his second novel out this week, should be considered the gold standard on two counts. One, I haven’t read anyone who feels as in control of his first person narrator. Two, no one writing today has a better understanding of what sword and sorcery is and how it should work. While Bones of the Old Ones isn’t quite as inspired as Desert of Souls, something I’ll discuss more in a moment, it remains at the peak of the mountain, something both young and old should read. The former to discover how much grace there is in simplicity. The latter to rediscover the kind of fiction that inspired a generation of fantasists.
In Bones of the Old Ones, Dabir and Asim have a new mystical challenge before them. A young woman shows up in Mosul, running from ancient wizards who would use her to unlock an ancient power. When Rami, their young ward, brings her to them, they have little choice but to help her. First because they’re uniquely qualified to do so, and second because they’re both honorable men who cannot in good conscience leave a woman to suffer. Ok, really Dabir is intellectually curious, and Asim thinks Dabir needs to help a woman to get over the one he couldn’t marry because she was marrying his boss. After consulting with their betters, in proper accordance with life in 8th century Arabia, the adventure begins.
Asim, swordsman and stolid protector, is Jones’ narrator, relating stories of his life to some future generation. Unlike many first person stories, Asim admits in the early going that he’s telling the reader a story. He interjects at times his thoughts from the future,
I have never forgotten him. I hope that when I am called to paradise I, too, shall meet it with a jest upon my lips.
It lends a self awareness to the novel, becoming a story told by a storyteller, written by another. As I mentioned in my review of Desert of Souls, these kinds of layers are an absolutely vital part of the Arabian Nights tradition, a tradition that Jones continues to pay homage to in the deftest of ways.
I’ve heard it said that first person narratives rob tension. I suspect that those readers would find overt admittances by the narrator to his survival as a death blow to holding characters at risk. However, where many first person narrators are also the protagonist, in Jones’ stories that isn’t so. Instead, Asim is the cipher through which the reader follows Dabir, great scholar and dabbling practitioner of the arcane. It is Dabir with whom the audience empathizes, even when it is Asim who provides the excitement. Although the reader is never privy to Dabir’s inner workings, he’s seen through Asim whose straightforward honesty seems to preclude bias. It is the rare novel where I can see why the author chose to use first person and the answer has nothing to do with it ‘sounding right’.
All of this is set amid a once in-a-generation snow storm, fundamentally changing the texture from what it was in Desert of Souls. No longer the shifting sands of the desert, or the sweltering sun that’s so inexorably linked with tales of Arabia, Bones of the Old Ones feels much more like a new world and less like an authentic historical setting. There’s also a much stronger blending of mythic tradition throughout, dipping deep into the Mesopotamian pantheon and Greek and steppe cultural notes. For me, that lessening of the Arabian ambiance left me slightly wanting, insofar as I adored Desert of Souls and generally find this period of time an endless source of fascination from Aladdin to The Prince of Persia to the source material itself, One Thousand and Ones Nights.
If there’s a danger in this historical period, much like with the Middle Ages, it’s to not adequately portray the difficulties of the time as they relate to women, or to become overly anachronistic for sake of expediency. It would be easy to get carried away with the romance of the era, flying carpets and djinn. Jones does play to the romantic side, but also doesn’t shy away from some of the complications, writing female characters who chafe at their cultural restrictions without seeming unrealistic or overly modern in their thinking. Lydia, a Greek sorceress, is particularly well cast as the foil to Dabir and Asim’s male centric world view.
I could go on, but many of the things I would go on to say would be repeating what I said in my review of Desert of Souls. Suffice to say Bones of the Old Ones retains nearly all the charm of its predecessor, cementing Howard Andrew Jones as one of the preeminent voices in sword and sorcery, and the fantasy genre at large. If there’s one author I read this year that I would beg my peers to read, it would be him. He’s doing something that is simultaneously new and old, refreshing and traditional. Check it out.
Side note one: The Desert of Souls is currently available in HARDCOVER for $10 at Amazon.
Side note two: I cannot in good conscience say anything nice about the cover. Look at this gorgeous Desert of Souls cover.
Now look at the hatchet job they did on the trade paperback and the second novel.
Are you kidding me?? Anyway, read the book.