With The Stardust Thief (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Chelsea Abdullah is kicking off an epic fantasy series called The Sandsea Trilogy that was inspired and influenced by her Arab heritage. Though as she notes in the following email interview, it was also influenced by her video game heritage as well.
Photo Credit: Neesa Abdullah
Let’s start with an overview of your novel’s plot: What is The Stardust Thief about, and what kind of world is it set in?
The Stardust Thief is an epic fantasy about a smuggler, a prince, a jinn, and a thief who go on a quest to find a mythical lamp.
The world’s setting and culture are inspired by my upbringing in Kuwait and by my Arab heritage. I’d been wanting to write an Arab-inspired fantasy that was a love letter to the stories I grew up with ever since I left home to go to university. I sat on the vague concept for years until, one day, the opening scene of this story presented itself to me. In my head I saw a merchant on a ship, a coin dancing across her knuckles, and I saw her bodyguard behind her, whom I knew was a jinn. I wrote The Stardust Thief because I was compelled to figure out their history.
As you said, The Stardust Thief is an epic fantasy novel. But are there other genres at work in this story?
I jokingly refer to this book as a “chaos fantasy” because there are a whole lot of misadventures packed into it. Personally, that’s what I love to write most: reluctant heroes stumbling their way through the plot. I’ve also used terms like “character-driven” and “adventure story” to describe this novel.
The Stardust Thief is your first published novel, but I’m guessing it’s not the first thing you’ve written. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a particularly big influence on The Stardust Thief but not on anything else you’ve written?
The Stardust Thief is inspired by the stories I grew up with, so I’d say Arab oral tales and, perhaps more familiarly to most readers, the 1001 Nights collection. Those particular influences are specific to this novel.
How about non-literary influences; was The Stardust Thief influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Definitely. I played a lot of role-playing video games growing up, games that had big, sprawling worlds and dynamic character interactions. I have no doubt those styles of world and character building helped shape my writing.
As far as inspirations specific to this story: One of the magical relics in The Stardust Thief — the bag of infinite space — is actually inspired by a video game trope. Specifically, that seemingly bottomless inventory stash video game protagonists always seem to possess…
Yeah, those are super helpful. Anyway, you said this story was inspired and influenced by your Arab heritage and the Arab stories you grew up with, which you experienced growing up in Kuwait. But I’m curious if there’s anything distinctly Kuwaiti or distinctly American-Kuwaiti about The Stardust Thief?
I avoid using the word “distinctly” because this story is based on my own upbringing as an American-Kuwaiti writer, and I’m very mindful of the fact that there are a myriad of perspectives and experiences within that subset of culture. But the first thing that comes to mind are the Arabic phrases and terms I used for this story (like attire and foods), which are based on vocabulary I’m familiar with having grown up in the Gulf region. That dialect has made transliterating some of the Arabic words a unique adventure.
And then, on the flipside of that, is there anything rather non-Arabic about The Stardust Thief? Aside from the video game stuff you mentioned.
Probably. The thing is, The Stardust Thief is Arab-inspired, but it’s still a high fantasy that takes place in another, fictional world. I can’t think of anything that is based off a specifically Western or Asian tale per say, but I’m sure those influences have made it into my work. The 1001 Nights is an excellent example of those blurred lines. Even though my inspiration is coming from the versions of the tales I heard, these stories have and continue to be told in various countries by different storytellers. It’s difficult to pinpoint what inspirations bled into the versions I heard. Such is the nature (and beauty) of oral storytelling, I think.
The Stardust Thief is the first book of The Sandsea Trilogy. What was it about this story that made you realize it needed three parts as opposed to one or five or thirty-seven?
It’s all about the characters for me. I settled on three books because I personally felt I’d need that space and time to flesh out the character arcs and get them all to where they need to be without rushing their development.
And do you know yet what the others will be called and when they’ll be out?
I do! At least, I think I do. I haven’t passed the titles on to my team just yet because the sequels are still works in progress, but I have tentative titles for both remaining books. My hopeful plan is to have all three titles fit into an overarching theme that I think feeds into the stories-in-stories element of the book, so I’m hoping they stick.
Upon hearing that The Stardust Thief is the first book of a trilogy, some people will decide to wait until all three are out before reading any of them, and some will decide to not only wait but to read them back-to-back. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait to read The Stardust Thief?
This is just my personal hope, but I wrote The Stardust Thief to be reminiscent of the oral stories it’s inspired by. And the most enticing oral stories end…and then are retold. Again and again and again. And when they end on cliffhangers? We tell the story again, teasing what could await the heroes all the while. That’s part of the magic of them, and I hope The Stardust Thief feels that way to some readers — like a story you want to sit with, one you can dive back into intermittently. And that makes it well-suited, I think, to being a book you can read (and reread?) before the sequels are out.
Earlier I asked if The Stardust Thief had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around, as you kids probably don’t say anymore, and ask if you think The Stardust Thief could work as a movie, show, or game?
I’m a huge gamer, so a video game would be a dream. However, I’m very cognizant of the fact that my characters aren’t exactly suited to battle systems…considering only two of the main cast are praised for their fighting prowess. So a TV show or movie probably makes the most sense format-wise.
And if someone wanted to adapt The Stardust Thief into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?
I can never answer this question because I don’t think I’ve ever imagined any of my characters as specific actors. I can’t see them with other peoples’ faces because they’re their own people. To get around this problem, my brain has decided to envision them in animated form. That’s actually a dream of mine: to get an animated series. But really, any adaptation would be such a privilege. I hope someone out there casts these characters as actors; I’d love to see how readers imagine them.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Stardust Thief?
I think a lot of people will discover this as they read, but The Stardust Thief is not a romantic fantasy. There’s the potential for romance, sure, but if it exists, it’s a subtle part of the characters’ growth / arcs, not a focus of the plot. I’ve had this question pop up a couple of times, so I thought it might be worth bringing up here.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Stardust Thief, what similar kind of epic fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for the second and third books to come out?
Hmm…if you’re looking for fantasies with jinn or which take place in a similar world, I recommend A Master Of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark or The City Of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty. If you want something that’s character driven, Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter is fantastic, as is C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken.