Disclaimer: ARC read via Netgalley.
Everyone should know the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It’s a wonderful story; largely because of the servant woman who saves her master though her intelligence. This short novel is a steampunk version of a tale, which means that Ali is an inventor who as the story opens is apprenticed to Charles Babbage.
And there are airships.
Which are cool because some of the scenes with Babbage and the pilot of an airship are quite good.
The novel is good, enjoyable if not great. What stops it from being truly outstanding are the cliché types (or almost cliché types). Perhaps it is unfair to criticize a fairy tale retelling for the overuse theme of bad older brother, Kassim, picking on his saintly younger sibling, Ali but retellings should bring something more to the tale than just set it in a different setting. It is true that there is some redemptive feeling in the relationship between brothers, but having Kassim even strike his wife feels too much like a cliché. Kassim doesn’t truly have a redeeming feature, and though his character is given some shading Dirk Dastardly, strangely, is who springs to mind when picturing Kassim.
The other issue is the relationship between Ali and Morgiana which is more complicated than a simple master/servant relationship. There is more a slave/master aspect so it makes the love story seem a bit, well, controlling. It is a problem that many retellings of such tales would have, many historical fiction works as well. If there is a master/slave relationship, how equal are the lovers to modern sensibilities. A master/servant relationship has more of a sense of, if not equality, of choice to it. In fairness, there is some adjustment of Morgiana’s character to adjust for this change in status. Morgiana is very much like her original in terms of intelligence, and like the original tale, is the more fascinating character than Ali Baba.
The setting is wonderfully described and a sense of place is conveyed by the word choices, actually using correct technical words to describe Eastern dress and custom (with a glossary at the book if a reader needs it).