All of the publishers' blurbs and pre-pub info says that this book was inspired by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I didn't get that from the story. Sure, It's a story about a young teen traveling with an adult slave who agrees to the trip in an effort to free his family. They get waylaid and sidetracked by a pair of con-artists who seem like friends but really want to sell them to the highest bidders. They travel along a river (but never on it!) and meet many new people with ideas like and unlike their own, and through their trials, the teen and the slave become friends. Okay, so maybe it's a LOT like Huck Finn, but the feel of the story is completely different. Huck Finn is light-hearted, easy-going fun on the surface with issues of race, slavery, violence, theft, general immorality boiling underneath.* In The Thin Executioner, the bad stuff is all right out in the open.
The society in which Jebel has been raised is exceedingly violent. The executioner is an exalted member of society in the way that movie stars are exalted in ours. They are not only men who mete out "justice," but also the providers of entertainment. Anyone convicted of any crime is executed; the Um Aineh have no jails and don't really hold much regard for human life. And their slaves aren't even considered human. Slaves live in their own section of the city where the living conditions are very degraded, can be beaten without recourse, and can be sentenced to death at the wish of their owner for any reason or none at all. Tel Hesani volunteers to accompany Jebel on his quest, knowing he will be executed at the end of it, to free his wife and children from this existence.
Once Jebel and Tel Hesani are on the road, Jebel depends on Tel Hesani's knowledge of the world and other people in it to survive, but still treats him with disdain. Because Jebel is eager to spend time with people like himself, meaning not slaves like Tel Hesani, they end up in quite a few compromising situations. The trials and tribulations of traveling through Makhras add up quickly, much more quickly than the change of heart I was expecting from Jebel. Tel Hesani saves him time and time again, and yet he's still valued as slightly more than a piece of shit by Jebel. About halfway through the book, I had to set it aside. Jebel's attitude is a lot to take. It isn't until Jebel and Tel Hesani are separated and Jebel gets to experience the life of a slave for himself that his ideas about slavery, human life, and Tel Hesani begin to change. When they're finally reunited, they continue on the quest, but Jebel (finally) seriously doubts whether he'll be able to kill Tel Hesani in the name of a god he's not sure is real in exchange for supernatural powers that may or may not exist.
The Thin Executioner is a long book, and I think that a lot of the obstacles Jebel and Tel Hesani meet on their way to Sabbah Eid could have been cut out without risking important plot points or character development. Still, it can be a gripping story. I had a hard time being in Jebel's head for so much of the book when he was such a self-centered jerk, but the payout is worth it in the end. If like me, you're suffering from post-Mockingjay pre-Monsters of Men malaise, The Thin Executioner just might soothe your gratuitous-violence-with-a-message seeking soul for a little while.
If LibraryThing is to be believed, Shan dedicated this book to the country of Jordan "which inspired much of this book's setting and plot, and whose landmarks provided the names of all the characters (with three exceptions) and places" (my ARC doesn't have the dedications page). Jebel also describes his crush as "slim and curvy, with long legs, even longer hair, dazzling brown eyes and teeth so white they might have been carved from shards of the moon. Her skin was a beautiful dark brown color" (2).** He also repeatedly describes the off-putting paleness of Tel Hesani's people. Based on these three things and a vague memory of a description of Jebel himself, I'm thinking Jebel and the rest of the Um Aineh are middle eastern, making this a fantasy book featuring POC! A rare and wonderful thing!
Book source: ARC provided by publisher via yalsa-bk.
* Admittedly, I don't think I've ever read Huck Finn all the way through (but I've seen the movie with Elijah Wood about a million times), so my assessment of the tone of the original may be a bit off.
** All quotes and page numbers are taken from an Advanced Reading Copy and do not necessarily match the published copy.