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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is fantasy author Chelsea Abdullah! The Stardust Thief, her debut novel and the first book in The Sandsea Trilogy, will be available in the US on May 17 and the UK on May 19. Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, this epic fantasy story is described as a book that “weaves together the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp.”

The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah - Book Cover

Why SFF?: Lies, Truths, and the Story Between Them

As a kid, one of my favorite games to play was Telephone, that children’s activity where someone whispers a story in your ear and you have to relay it to the next person from memory. The storyteller might begin, “Once upon a time, a prince rode out to slay a dragon and save a princess” but by the time we get to the final iteration of the story, the narrative could have changed to, “Once upon a time, a princess befriended a dragon and protected her from a conniving prince.”

I’ve always thought that there was a unique magic to oral storytelling. It’s impossible to peg down a single “truth” in those tales when everyone remembers the narrative differently. Perhaps that’s why those stories have always stuck with me most. Just recently, when I was asked which version of the 1001 Nights I used as inspiration for my Arab-inspired fantasy debut, my answer was “the versions my dad used to tell me and my sister as kids.”

The true power of a story is in the telling, and the “truth” that someone takes away from that story is dependent on their own lived experience. When I set out to write The Stardust Thief, I wanted to pay homage to the 1001 Nights and to Arab oral tales as I had experienced them. With that goal came a desire to write a fantasy that was a love letter to my Arab heritage.

Why a fantasy?

First, I’ve always thought the SFF genre is an evocative landscape for exploring the murky spaces between truths and lies—it allows authors and readers to examine human truths from a distance and through fantastical concepts that can both enchant and critique.

Second, I looked for these fantastical stories as a kid. In the Kuwait libraries, in the bookstores, online—I yearned to see nuanced depictions of Arab culture in fantasy that went beyond “exotic.” Many of the Arab-coded characters I read were portrayed as unfortunate archetypes: villains or barbarians who existed within a hostile, unhospitable desert environment. I was constantly searching for books that had rep that felt…real.

It wasn’t until much later that I started to find these books, rare as they were. The first time I saw Arabic words in a popular fantasy, I was overjoyed. I can understand those words, I thought. It was a magical moment, to feel like I was being spoken to.

That joy—that pride in my heritage—lies at the heart of The Stardust Thief. But this story isn’t just a love letter to oral storytelling. As I was remembering these old tales I’d grown up with, I mused a lot on the idea of stories as a bridge between truth and fiction.

When I sat down to write, I decided I wanted to explore that in-between space in my writing. In the world of The Stardust Thief, the lines between story and reality blur. Was the man who trapped the jinn in the mythical magic lamp righteous or evil? Is the King of the Forty Thieves, a famed jinn hunter, a hero or a villain? Depending on who you ask in the story, the answer changes.

And the same is true of our reality. The truth is slippery, and everyone is a storyteller. Even written stories evolve and, just like a game of Telephone, the meaning of the story changes with the reader.

Culture is a palimpsest of lived experiences, not just a single story told repeatedly. The Stardust Thief is a very personal story for me, but I hope that it inspires pride (for those who see echoes of their lived experiences in it) or wonder (for those seeing a new perspective) in the culture that inspired it.

The Stardust Thief is a quest narrative, but it’s also a story about stories—the ones we tell ourselves and the ones others tell about us. It’s a story about how those narratives shape us, and why remembering and sharing them is important. It’s a high fantasy, but the world and culture are inspired by my heritage. It’s an in-between place, a story between personal truths and fiction.

I’m excited to add my voice, as an American-Arab woman, to a genre that simultaneously encourages readers to suspend their disbelief and to expand their worldview. This is becoming even more true as the Adult SFF sphere becomes more inclusive, opening doors to voices from different backgrounds and cultures. (Which I hope to see even more of in the future!)

The true power of a story is in the telling. We’ve always told fantastical stories to make sense of the world, and it will be a joy to see—and an honor to participate in—the future of those evolving narratives.

Photo of Chelsea Abdullah Chelsea Abdullah is an American-Kuwaiti writer born and raised in Kuwait, where she grew up listening to stories about mysterious desert creatures and wily (only sometimes likable) heroes. Consumed by wanderlust, she has put down roots in various states. After earning her MA in English at Duquesne University, she moved to New York, where she currently lives. When not immersed in her own fictional worlds, she spends her free time playing video games, doodling characters, and hoarding books she doesn’t have the shelf space for.