01 February 2012

Book Review: The Waters of Eternity

The Waters of Eternity (2012)
By Howard Andrew Jones

Howard Andrew Jones (website) moved into the fantasy and sword-and-sorcery scene with his stories of Dabir and Asim, a heroic team of scholar and swordsman adventuring in a fantastical version of the Middle East of Caliph Harun al-Rashid (regined 786–809 C.E.). Starting in 2000, the stories appeared in various magazines, building up Jones’s reputation as a fine author of old-style adventure fantasy tinged with mystery. He then went wide in 2011 with his first published novel, The Desert of Souls, which took Dabir and Asim into the long-form. The Desert of Souls attracted rave reviews and made Barnes & Noble’s list of the “Best Fantasy Releases of 2011.”

The Waters of Eternity, available as an e-book, collects together most of the Dabir and Asim stories that bolstered Jones’s career. Along with a new prologue, “In Bygone Days,” there are six stories: “The Thief of Hearts,” “The Slayer’s Tread,” “Sight of Vengeance,” “The Waters of Eternity,” and “Marked Man.” Missing are “Whispers from the Stone” (folded into The Desert of Souls), “The Dream Horn” (part of the upcoming anthology The Roar of the Crowd, which will also feature one of my stories), and “An Audience with the King” (the first story written, and not one of the author’s favorites).

Dabir ibn Khalil and Asim el Abbas resemble an Arabian Nights mixture of Sherlock and Watson/Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser . . . but not quite. Asim is the narrator, recording these strange escapes with his partner, Dabir, in their service to the caliph in Mosul. (The stories were originally set in a fictional part of the Abbasid Empire, Dariashan, but Jones has re-written them to reflect changes he made in The Desert of Souls, moving the stories to an historical location.) Asim is a skilled warrior, and Dabir the clever scholar, and together they face adventures that combine elements of the classic mystery with supernatural horror and sword-and-sorcery action.

The stories usually begin with Dabir and Asim answering a call for help or investigating a recent crime. Although there is a recognizable formula to the stories, the author throws enough surprises and twists at his heroes in each tale to make them feel fresh. All but one of the stories have fantasy elements (I’m not telling you the exception; that would ruin the surprise), but often not the one a reader might expect at the outset. This is a setting where djinn, ghuls, golems, and other strange beasts are real—but aren’t necessarily the answers to the mysteries that Dabir and Asim tackle. Jones often draws readers’ attention with clever misdirection before bringing on the real danger.

There isn’t a sub-par story in the collection; all of them are worth reading, giving a good double dose of heroic action with Asim and deductive problem-solving with Dabir. “Waters of Eternity” is the best, so it is no surprise that it grabbed the title of the volume. This fast-paced tale has Dabir and Asim searching for an ersatz “fountain of youth” to save the life of a dying young woman. There are wonderful helpings of the grotesque, and the conclusion is bleak but incredibly satisfying. Close for the honor of top story is “The Slayer’s Tread,” with its intriguing take on the legend of the Golem. “Sight of Vengeance” has the strongest emotional resonance for its characters, and reveals a great deal about Dabir.

Readers who have already made the acquaintance of Dabir and Asim through The Desert of Souls should snatch up this collection immediately. For readers who have yet to read the novel, I advise that they start here and see how the characters first developed. With a new novel coming out this year, Bones of the Old Ones, Dabir and Asim are on their way to stardom in the new sword-and-sorcery firmament.