Jebel Rum is the youngest son of Wadi’s executioner, the famed Rashed Rum – the second most powerful man in the city. When Rashed announces his retirement after a public execution, he expresses a hope that his two eldest sons – Jebel’s brothers – will enter the competition to select his successor but neglects to mention the skinny and weak Jebel.
Humiliated, Jebel is determined to win the competition and thereby the heart of the cold and calculating Debbat, eldest daughter of Wadi’s ruler. However he knows that the only way he can do so is by going on a quest to Tubaygat and petitioning the God Sabbah Eid to make him invincible. The quest will be a difficult one. Not only will Jebel have to travel through hostile kingdoms and savage terrain, but he will also have to take with him someone who will agree to be sacrificed to the God on Jebel’s behalf.
Salvation comes in the form of Tel Hesani, a slave who agrees to be sacrificed and serve as Jebel’s guide in return for Jebel agreeing to free his family.
What follows is a road journey where Jebel and Tel Hesani encounter and overcome dangers and learn a lot about each other and their respective cultures in the process. It’s billed as Darran Shan’s first foray into fantasy, but there remain strong horror elements – not least in the way he lingers on the public beheadings carried out by Rashad.
It’s a fast moving book and while the morality tale is a little simplistic, it’s an entertaining read. There are some surprisingly mature elements to the story – notably the inclusion of houses of ill repute, with Shan alluding to what happens inside. He also riffs on religion, particularly the hypocrisy of people who perform cruel acts in the name of their faith, which gets a little heavy-handed at times. Also heavy-handed is the inclusion of two unscrupulous characters called Bush and Blair – names which are totally out-of-keeping with the pseudo-Arabic style that Shan’s opted for. Shan’s using them to make a political point and for me, it didn’t work in the context of the story.
Saying that, it’s an amusing read and one that boys in particular should enjoy, although it falls a little short of the publisher’s claim that it makes Shan a new Master of Fantasy.