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The Guardians of Erum and the Calamitous Child of Socotra

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Vividly imagined and very atmospheric, underpinned by some real emotion and moral dilemmas.

Synopsis

To avert disaster, a powerful and secretive jinn master sets out to kill a calamitous child, a boy named Dileel, born under the Serpent-Neck star. However, a young occultist apprentice also seeks the boy on behalf of his master, who believes Dileel must be saved. When both fail in their missions and Dileel is snatched away by an unknown abductor, his father, Fada, must spring into action to mount a rescue mission. Drawn into the cutthroat world of intercity political machinations and a rivalry between jinn masters and occultists, Fada journeys across ancient Arabia, enlisting allies along the way and risking everything to save his son.

Taking place in the Middle East, The Guardians of Erum is a mix of alternate history and thriller book with fantasy elements. Rather, the supernatural in this book comes from the various types of djinn, evil, good, and in-between, as befits the original Arabian and Persian myths.

 

The story follows the paths of three unlikely characters: Fada, a poor farmer, and a young father who quests across ancient Arabia to save his son Dileel from mysterious forces; Behas, A skillful jinn master. And one who would do anything, wrong or right, to keep Wadi Erum safe; and Yam, An ambitious young orphan who left his hometown to find a better opportunity, he met with an occultist in Port Ruri. These three are drawn together by circumstance.

 

There are adventures, tension, humor, fights over customs and ideologies, and a good amount of peril. That being said, the flow of the novel was top rate and a quick read, truly giving us a feel of the Arabian Nights universe while focusing mostly on great action, great characterization, and a solid plot.

 

The environments are finely crafted, completely believable, and often beautiful. Otherworldly elements are unnerving and strange in exactly the way they should be, from Djinns to Occultist. The characters are perfectly realized; never too-accomplished, never too one-sided, shades of subtle coloring throughout.

 

There is a level of perfection in the author's style and narration that you can feel on every page. A tight, well-polished reserve in the choice of words and in the slow construction of the plot. Author Ali Hasan Ali spends a huge part of the book developing his characters, making us inhabiting the heads of various characters as they travel about the city, using these quiet spaces to put in vast details about the inner life of these characters and the outer complexity of the fictional city and its teeming complex life.

 

I loved the middle-eastern setting of the book. Very engaging dialogue and some unforgettable characters lie within the pages of this book. I am confident that readers who are new to Middle Eastern settings or tales richly seated amongst those of A Thousand and One Nights will thoroughly enjoy and undoubtedly be swept off their feet by this debut.

 

For a debut author, Ali Hasan Ali shows exceptional mastery of his craft and his book is unlikely to disappoint any serious reader who is looking for a bit more than a few swords slashing and spells misfiring. The world that author Ali Hasan Ali has definitely the potential to develop into something amazing.

 

Reviewed by

The Bookish Elf is all about the passion for books and reading, knowledge and perception.

Synopsis

To avert disaster, a powerful and secretive jinn master sets out to kill a calamitous child, a boy named Dileel, born under the Serpent-Neck star. However, a young occultist apprentice also seeks the boy on behalf of his master, who believes Dileel must be saved. When both fail in their missions and Dileel is snatched away by an unknown abductor, his father, Fada, must spring into action to mount a rescue mission. Drawn into the cutthroat world of intercity political machinations and a rivalry between jinn masters and occultists, Fada journeys across ancient Arabia, enlisting allies along the way and risking everything to save his son.

Behas the saher, deceiver of all weak minds, master of all sorcery, necromancer and conjurer, alchemist, and lord of the jinnic realm, was widely known as the worst of mankind. But controversially, many ignorant minorities perceived Behas as a man of righteousness and heroism! Villagers, farmers, and cities had given him many titles and names based on their encounters with him.

However, you must know that none described him well, for no humans or jinn, unseen creatures, knew what exactly his true intentions and doings were. While most believed that he served the Majlis of the Jinn, a council of elderly jinnic lords, men debated whether they were envious jinn that opposed the world of man or benevolent ones that protected it from incomprehensible evil. You must also know that Behas himself justified his actions with the belief that he was bound to protect humanity from the evils of the jinnic realm, something he found hard to explain. He had tried on many occasions, but he had failed to convince everyone as a result of his wrongful actions, and even those who believed in him did not fully comprehend him.

The tale I am about to share with you is merely a minor example of the many stories that are told about Behas and his mysterious activities. This one occurred when he reached his late forties, and a special child was born—a calamitous child!

Long ago, on a calm night in the early years of ancient Arabia, Behas entered a palm-farming settlement near the southern tip of the Arabian Desert.

He snaked his way between mud-walled farms in a palm grove, moving towards his next victim and dragging his dark blue cloak over the wet path with effort. To his luck, the clean air helped him breathe deeply and withstand tiredness. He kept his cloak open, exposing his chest to the dry air as well. Beneath it, he wore his regular dark pants and a scarf wrapped around his waist and across his weak chest. It was a wicked night, neither dark nor bright, half lit by moonlight and half shaded by thick dark clouds. Behas walked in the shade of those clouds. It was not that he feared being seen by anyone; he simply preferred walking in shadows. And he believed that even if he were to be seen, no weak farmer would dare to keep him from his victim, so he walked with confidence.

His bizarre, sinister dress reflected his identity; one would know him even if one were seeing him for the first time. Other outlawed wizards and jinn masters like him tended to blend in and try to hide who they were. Yet he challenged his opponents to come and get him if they could.

New evil is born, his all-knowing jinni had warned him. A jinni, or jinn in plural form, is a supernatural creature that dwells unseen in our world, revealing itself only to men who are able to tame it or bind it to their wills.

Another! Behas had thought in confusion when he first heard. He had to perform a necessary task: He had to kill that newborn. A calamitous newborn, he believed. This is the third calamitous newborn in only two decades!

Behas, guided by his all-knowing jinni, reached the victim’s home. It was a tiny single-roomed farm hut made entirely of dry date-palm leaves, or areesh, as they’re called in Arabia. Behas stood at the door and pulled out a tiny pouch from his cloak. In it was a single dry, dead black worm. With two fingers, he pulled it out, held it near his mouth, and whispered a few words. Then he licked it and placed it near the bottom of the door. “Make no mess this time,” he whispered sharply. With that, he summoned his second jinni for the night.

The dry worm came to life and slowly crawled into the hut. As it did, it grew bigger and bigger, until it transformed to a long black snake. This was Behas’s second type of jinni, a transformation jinni. Unlike any other kind of jinn, these ones could easily transfer their souls into a dead being and bring it to life once their master allowed.

Moonlight shone between dry palm leaves of the roof, and more came through a small door at the back of the hut. That blueish gleam of moonlight gave the snake enough sight to check the surroundings as it lifted its head. A man slept on the floor on the right side of the hut, and a woman with a child on the opposite side.

The victim and its parents.

The snake moved as silently as that night itself towards the mother. The transformation jinni knew from experience that it did not want to strike the child first, as that would wake up the mother and create panic. The task would be easier without disruption, and the last thing the jinni wanted was to fail its master, Behas.

The snake reached the first target. For a moment, its venomous fangs hung inches above the sleeping mother’s neck. The bite was slow and gentle; the tips of those fangs pierced her skin without being felt, like a mosquito’s bite on a summer night, but with rather deadlier effects.

The woman had no senses, felt no pain, as she was killed by a jinni in the form of a snake! Panic or fear did not even exist in her final dream.

Behas, outside, sensed that so far, all was going well. Painless night! He sighed, annoyed that he had had to travel seven days just to stand at a door while his snake jinni had all the fun. He did not even get to see anything!

After leaving the mark of its fangs on its first prey’s neck, the black snake crawled silently onward. It lifted its head to peek into the small bed, made of dry palm trunk, where the child lay. It paused to stare at his sulking face; the child seemed to be having a nightmare. Time to end your fears, the jinni thought.

But before it could draw its sharp fangs again, the small door at the back of the hut burst open! Moonlight shone brighter from behind the shadow of a young man standing at the door like a guardian angel. The snake froze in shock, but the young man moved without a pause towards it. Barely catching his breath from a long run, he smashed the snake’s head with a rock he held in his hand. He had come prepared.

The rock smashed the soft bones in the snake’s head, splashing blood on the hard, dusty floor. The wretched jinni had trapped itself in a vulnerable being and died with it!

The banging of the rock ended the child’s nightmare, but he erupted in loud, distressed cries. The young man hurried to pick up the child. And as he stood to leave, he found its father staring back at him in disbelief.

It took a long second for the farmer to digest the scene before his eyes: a dead snake and a pool of blood below his motionless wife. His senses came back to him slowly as he realized that he wasn’t dreaming, and a stranger seemed to be holding his child.

“Who are you?” He felt a bit angry and scared; kidnapping newborns was common in Arabia, and the stranger before him could be a thief. “Put my child down, now!”

“I, I will.” The young man set the child down and stepped back in surrender as he saw the father coming towards him. But before the father moved any farther or said anything else, the front door of dry rachis fell hard on the dusty rug between them.

Behas filled the doorway with his height and long cloak. The father found him gloomier than the young thief he had seen first. Behas ignored the two men at first; his eyes fell on the sleeping woman and his headless snake beside her. “Again! One can never rely on a brainless transformation jinni,” he said with a sarcastic frown.

The two men stared back at him with equal fear and confusion.

He pulled out a sharp dagger made of white bone—a single bone, carved elegantly from grip to tip. A jinn master usually carried it for cutting plants and skinning small animals, but not for fighting other men.

“A saher!” cried the farmer. A dark sorcerer! The situation was worse than he had thought at first. The unusual and sinister figure of Behas was revealed to be a jinn master, not a thief!

“Who are you two? Leave now,” he pled as he stood between his child and the two unexpected invaders. He now thought that the young thief he had seen first was probably an apprentice sorcerer as well. His wife remained unconscious, and he began to think that they had killed her. The dead snake and the pool of blood made him feel that he had woken up to a nightmare. Nothing made sense; there was only an overwhelming feeling of anger and fear.

“I will leave,” Behas said, sounding polite rather than sinister, but after a mere second, he gave an evil grin and added, “but only after I take your child.”

The cries of his scared child and the body of his deceased wife ignited more anger. The hopeless farmer did not care about his life without his family. “You will not touch my son.” He sprang towards Behas, grabbed his wrist, and pushed him out of the hut. Behas couldn’t stand against the strong farmer, and while he was being forced backwards, he felt the weak bones in his wrist about to break. He couldn’t hold on to his white dagger any longer, and as he moved backwards, he accidentally stepped on his cloak and tripped, falling on his back. The warlock’s cloak covered his eyes as he fell and he felt the weight of the strong farmer above him, crushing his bones and lungs, pressing his body flat to the ground.

He used his free hand to remove the cloak from his eyes and tried to push the farmer off him, but with no result, as his arms were much weaker. That night, he did not summon any jinn to fight for him; he either had come not expecting a fight or had thought that no one would even dare wrestle him and beat him. Hopeless and out of strength, he looked to his right, searching for his bone dagger. It was not far, but before he could reach for it, the father picked it up and held it firmly, ready to strike.

“Wait!” Behas yelled as he grabbed the farmer’s wrist in a desperate effort to stop him. In a weaker position and with little time to improvise deception, the old jinn master had to tell the truth, in hopes that the father would understand. “I am here to save you from evil. I am here to save your child.”

The farmer pulled his hands hard to free them from Behas’s weak grip, then stuck the tip of the sharp bone in the jinn master’s neck. It wasn’t sharp enough to cut him, but Behas felt its pressure. “Who are you?” the father asked, reasserting his superior position over the intruder. “What evil are you saving my son from?”

“My name is Behas. And your child will not be normal,” he said in a choked voice. “His soul will be used by other jinn masters! They will use his blood for their gain and will cast evil upon other men.”

The farmer didn’t pay full attention to the fact that he was holding a dagger to the throat of the most wanted warlock ever, as he was also reminded that his child was in the hands of another intruder. My child! He began to worry, as he could no longer hear the boy cry. His heart plunged. He had to save his son, but before he left to look for him, he had to end the situation he had on his hands.

“You are nothing but lies, Behas. I know what kind of man you are,” the farmer spat out, pointing the dagger at Behas’s face. “You are the only evil I should keep away from my son.” With a sudden movement, he drove the bone deep into Behas’s neck.

Behas felt the sudden pain of the bone being pressed deep into his throat. The shock of suffocation made his body react automatically, trying to push the father’s hands away, but his weak muscles failed him. He tried to breathe air into his lungs, but he couldn’t.

The farmer held the bone firmly, staring down into Behas’s wide-open eyes. He saw fear and suffering in them but offered no mercy, even as it occurred to him he should feel guilt at the fact that he was killing another man. He could see nothing but the dying Behas under his arms. He held the bone until there was no more struggle. The saher’s heartbeats slowly faded, then stopped completely. The most feared, most wicked, and most wanted sorcerer, Behas, was now mortal. I killed him, the farmer thought with relief, shock, and pride. He had never killed a man before that night. I killed Behas! But he failed to notice one important detail: No blood came from Behas’s neck!

The thrill of killing faded as soon as he remembered his son and the other intruder. He jumped away from Behas and ran inside the hut to find his son. The sight of his motionless wife forced him to pause; he stared at her for a long, sad moment, wishing he had saved her. He crawled up beside her, pushed the headless snake away, and checked her neck to find the markings of the snake’s fangs. “Forgive me,” he wept after he kissed her forehead one last time.

In Arabia, it is believed that the dead can hear and understand. When people lose their loved ones, they can still express how much they loved them. The farmer promised his wife he would save their son and keep him safe. “No evil jinn will touch him.”

He stood and went out the back door of the hut, but he saw no sign of anyone there, though the wet ground revealed traces of footsteps. He grabbed an atala— a wooden pole with a sharp rock tied to one end, which was used to cut the dead fronds of palm trees. It was similar to a spear but with a round tip instead of a sharp one.

The farmer moved quickly, following the marks on the ground to the end of his farm. He tucked his long hair behind his right ear to uncover it, then heard the echoes of his child’s cries. Not far away! he thought as he jumped over his wall of rocks and mud and began to run along the narrow paths between the farms.

Only I will protect you from evil.

About the author

A transport planner by trade, he began writing as a hobby during his youth to help him learn English. His first novel, The Guardians of Erum, an epic historical fantasy, is inspired by the folklore and ancient history of Arabia. He lives in Abu Dhabi, where he is working on his next book. view profile

Published on June 17, 2020

Published by

130000 words

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Reviewed by

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