The Big Idea: Howard Andrew Jones

Writing as a travel opportunity: It’s something that authors take advantage of, as they build strange new places — and travel in time to strange old places — to show you what goes on there. Howard Andrew Jones has come back from such travels with a new book — The Desert of Souls — and a tale to tell about what he’s seen in his journey, and why the journey is important to him.


Every writer knows the adage “Write what you know”, but I think it’s more important to write what you love. That’s why I leave middle America behind to follow medieval Muslim heroes into exotic lands.

I’ve always loved stories that take me to strange new places. When I was five I was glued to the TV by reruns of the original Star Trek. I later traveled into space with Leigh Brackett, prowled the gritty streets of Leiber’s Lankhmar, fell into the mind-bending universe of Zelazny’s Amber, and sailed with the daring Horatio Hornblower. But the the historical fiction of Harold Lamb and Robert E. Howard cast the greatest spell upon me. Their tales were moody, brooding, and vivid, and populated by realistic folk from cultures I’d never known.

Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russel’s brilliant portrayal of 8th century Baghdad (in issue 50 of The Sandman) brought that particular locale into sharp focus for me. Arts, mathematics, poetry, and science blossomed during the golden age of the Abbasid caliphate, while Europe wallowed in the the poverty, illiteracy, and disease of a Dark Age. Yet there were still plenty of blank spaces on middle-eastern maps, filled in by glorious storytelling. Men and women lived ordinary civilized lives, but they knew that the supernatural might lurk in the neighboring kingdom, or around any street corner.

It was not just fantastic places that fascinated me, but the heroes who traveled there as well. I don’t mean flawless, square-jawed men in white hats fighting cardboard villains in black; the heroes I liked squabbled and bickered and made mistakes. They had blind spots and flaws, and sometimes they made the wrong choices. Whatever their disagreements, though, when the chips were down they stood together. At heart they were brothers.

I re-read and rewatched — lathered, rinsed, and repeated — never guessing I was researching while entertaining myself, until one day a narrator stalked out of my subconscious and wouldn’t shut up. He was the stalwart Captain Asim, loyal bodyguard and indispensable confidant to the brilliant scholar Dabir ibn Khalil. A number of reviewers have compared Dabir and Asim to Holmes and Watson, but Asim is far more integral to the story than the typical movie and TV Watsons, more central even than Doyle’s capable narrator. He and Dabir reach greater heights together than Dabir could ever reach alone.

Once I knew my heroes, I wanted worthy supporting characters as well. I was drafting an adventure story, not melodrama, so even amongst all the fantastical elements I wanted an antagonist with honest motivations. I discovered not only what my villain was after, but the bleak injustice that had sent him down his dark path. Additionally there could be no place for an “obligatory love interest A,” but any fears I had about a generic heroine vanished for me the moment Sabirah walked into her first scene. Young, intellectually gifted, supremely confident, and haunted by the specter of a coming political marriage… she brought fire and life to every scene and demanded a stronger arc. I happily obliged.

The Desert of Souls came into being as an origin story, not just about how the characters met, but how Dabir and Asim came to depend upon one another. Two men are caught up in events bigger than themselves and in their journey they learn to work together so they have the strength to face a terrible evil. It takes place against the technicolor backdrop of the Arabian Nights, complete with lost cities and sweeping deserts, scheming sorcerers, implacable djinn, and secrets men were not meant to know. There’s romance and heartbreak, swashbuckling action, and hard won victories.

In brief, it’s an adventure with the kind of elements I’ve always loved, and I hope that readers find the same enjoyment in the story that I felt while drafting it.


The Desert of Souls: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt here. Visit his blog here.

25 Comments on “The Big Idea: Howard Andrew Jones”

  1. As with so many other Big Idea books, I’ve suggested my local library buy a copy or three. :) It sounds absolutely awesome! Hopefully the library purchase will introduce it (and the author) to many more people! :)

  2. Sounds fabulous. I’m bummed it’s not available electronically, though. I’ll try to remember to look it up next time I get to a bookstore.

  3. I’m a huge fan of fantasy and historical fiction, so when the two are combined I’m giddy with happiness. :) The first chapter was great – I plan to read the rest as soon as possible.

    And interesting blog posts, especially the one about the distinction between high fantasy and sword & sorcery. I’d always thought of them as two sides of the same coin – the perspective of the decision makers vs the grunts, if you will. You (and Roger Ebert) seem to see it differently.

  4. John, I totally dig these posts. I’ve bought several of the books by the authors you’ve invited to write for “The Big Idea” and have yet to be disappointed. This is just really cool.

  5. Having lived in worked in the Middle East and North Africa, I know that the lands and legends of the Near East are certainly ripe for English-reading audiences wishing for something different in their sword and sorcery tales. Anyone who cites Howard’s works is certainly getting my attention.

    This is a book I will look for.

  6. I don’t think I’ve ever said “thank you for posting these” – so here’s the thank-you note. My local library has a copy on order, and I’ve got it on hold (finances being what they aren’t…)

  7. Thank you all for your interest and support.

    Illiadfan, I’m glad you found the blog posts of interest. Actually, I think you’ve a point about the difference between high fantasy often being the difference between stories about princes and stories about grunts. It’s certainly true in some cases. I think defining a border line can be useful, with the caveat that things close to the border can be hard to distinguish between one or the other side. Lord knows, I’ve listened to people arguing about which side of the divide different stories in different subgenres fall, and at some point talking about borders is more a hindrance than a help.

    As for those electronic versions, Amazon should have a Kindle version available yesterday, and it looks like the Nook version is up an running.

  8. Leiber, Zelany and Howard were the influences?

    Mr. Jones you have garnered yourself another reader!

  9. Sounds good. Too few stories featuring characters from that culture and tradition. I liked Crichton’s ‘Eaters of the Dead’/’The 13th Warrior’, and plan to check this out.

  10. Thank you all for your interest. I didn’t know it was available through iBooks — thanks for letting me know, and thanks for your purchase!

    Mr. Taylor, as for Leiber and Zelazny, ye Gods, I read the first Amber and Leiber’s Swords Against Death so many times in junior high and high school (and college!) that I honestly lost count. I think I read those the way a lot of fantasy readers read The Lord of the Rings. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy LoTR; I just liked Amber and Lankhmar more. I didn’t discover Howard until my late 20s, because I was so skeptical of the endless rows of Conan knock-offs. It was when I read his more obscure historical fiction that I really fell in love with his work, though!

    Beth, most bookstores should be able to order you a copy even if there’s not one on the shelf. I hear that even Borders can order copies, though I don’t imagine that they will have my book or any other new releases on bookstore shelves, as they can’t pay the publisher’s them. Sad news. We’re losing our local Borders,which was well run and well situated.

  11. Mr. Jones – do you know when it will be available for the Kindle? Amazon has a kindle page for it, but it says pricing not currently available, and no link to purchase.

  12. protected static, thank you for your support! I hope you enjoy it.

    Jeff, it was supposed to be available on the day of launch, and was once available for pre-order — no longer. It appears to be an Amazon glitch and I hope that it will be settled soon. I’ve spoken with both my publisher and agent about the matter, and they’re trying to get it fixed.. I’m very sorry for the inconvenience, and I’m frustrated myself by the slow resolution to the problem.

  13. Finally got around to getting my copy over at Barnes and Noble. I must say, any book that opens with a dead parrot sketch has serious promise. And the cover looked gorgeous on my iPhone’s screen. If the rest of the prose is as clever as the opening and as gorgeous as the cover it inspired, I’ll have to update my “must buy this author” list.

    Thank you, Mr. Jones.

  14. I finished this book a month ago, and I hope there will be sequels!

    The characters are fantastic, and the settings, atmosphere, and “1001 nights” aspects make for a great sword & sorcery tale.

    The story drew me in, and the characters became more real with every page and encounter.

    It also had the levity and camaraderie of Lieber’s Ffahrd and the Grey Mouser tales, and that’s all to the good..

  15. Hey Rob,

    I’m delighted you liked it! I’m putting finishing touches on the first sequel, another standalone novel, and then I’m contracted to write two more. Right now a new e-collection of short stories featuring Dabir and Asim has just been released. It’s available through Amazon, B&N, and I guess wherever else e-books are sold, and is titled The Waters of Eternity.

    Warm regards,
    Howard Andrew Jones

%d bloggers like this: