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Fantasy helps revitalize swords and sorcery template

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The Bones of the Old Ones

By Howard Andrew Jones

Thomas Dunne Books, 320 pages, $30

IN the dark alleyways of Mosul, in eighth-century Arabia, a Persian noblewoman is fleeing for her life.

Robed and shadowy figures pursue her, preternaturally fast, and with a gait that seems not quite human. When she arrives seeking sanctuary at the home of Dabir, noted scholar and trusted adviser to the ruling Caliph, it comes to him and the loyal Captain Asim to set things right.

Doing so puts the two old friends at the centre of a plot involving summoned spirits, millenia-old sorcerers and doomsday cults. In the second chapter, they are already fighting for their lives against supernatural warriors, and with each new confrontation, the foes are more deadly and the stakes higher, culminating in a desperate final battle at novel's climax. Yep, it's a page-turner, all right.

In-between, Dabir and Asim are struggling to solve a mystery with ancient roots. Poring over crumbling documents, they hope to divine the origin and significance of a scattered series of bone-carved weapons. And they ask, who are these unstoppable foes seeking to take these from us?

What will they do if they gain them? And what manner of beast could have provided a bone so monstrous?

Novels with fantasy settings breaking the Anglo-Saxon mould (like, say, Lian Hearn's feudal Japan-inspired Otori series), are a rare pleasure if they're done well. And Howard Andrew Jones' ancient Arabian adventure series fits the bill.

Necromancers, mythical beasts, and yes, even flying carpets feature in these stories, but not elves, hobbits or any number of other fantasy fiction standbys.

The stamp of Arabia's most famous book of tales, The One Thousand and One Nights, is clear enough. The fast-paced, swashbuckling narrative might also bring to mind the sword and sorcery tales of Robert E. Howard, whom Jones, an American, cites as a tremendous influence on his writing.

The vivid details of the setting, however, reveal the deep research Jones has conducted on this period. A noted expert on historical fiction writer Harold Lamb, he learned from this literary mentor the importance of getting the details right.

The picture he paints of an ancient Muslim empire ascendant is propped up by snapshots of everyday life as much as the political machinery of the Caliphate and its attendant court intrigue.

Ever since J.R.R. Tolkien, bookstore shelves have groaned under the weight of epic, high-fantasy doorstoppers. The creator of Middle-earth was an Oxford academic, but his imitators, by and large, are not.

Enough dreck can be found in the mix, one might be forgiven for thinking that publishers will put out any book with a wizard on the cover. It's a small twist of irony, then, to see such finely tuned prose instead claiming Conan the Barbarian as an antecedent.

Jones has taken the best parts of the swords and sorcery template -- fast pacing and storytelling panache -- married it to a literary sensibility and, in so doing, revitalized the genre. His well-drawn characters and lyrical prose -- written, it seems, for an oral telling -- conspire to keep the reader from putting this novel down before the very last page.

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 J7

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