The Arabian Nights Trilogy - Craig Shaw Gardner
The Other Sinbad
A Bad Day for Ali Baba
Scheherezade's Night Out
It's always a shame when a good series is let down by its first instalment. There's nothing particularly wrong with The Other Sinbad, but it fulfills its cover's promise as a sub-Pratchett bit of Arabian Nights-themed comic fantasy fluff and doesn't go much further than that. In that respect, it's the most similar to Gardner's more famous work, the Wuntvor & Ebenezum trilogies (A Malady of Magicks etc) about a hapless apprentice wizard, which rely more on a series of silly events than any clever wordplay or plot-structure - more Mr Bean than Frasier. Luckily, the latter two books - belatedly tacked on to make a trilogy out of a standalone - improve matters beyond all recognition.
The Other Sinbad has a very simple premise - young porter Sinbad runs into his more famous merchant-adventurer namesake, now an aging and corpulent travel-bore, who has just run out of funds and needs to go on another voyage. Fleeing the powerful but stupid djinn Ozzie, who wants to kill Sinbad but gets confused when there are two of them, they end up retracing the original Sinbad's previous voyages, and discovering all the embarrassing details he left out of his usual travel tales. It's quite fun, but all the jokes are a bit obvious and it gets rather wearisome after a while. I probably wouldn't bother recommending this at all if it wasn't for the rest of the series being so great.
It's hard to put my finger on exactly why A Bad Day For Ali Baba is so much better, but the difference is noticeable within the first couple of pages - possibly because this is written in the third person as opposed to Sinbad's first, giving the humour a more detached tone. It also seems to have much more of a plot, unlike the string of crazy but unconnected antics of the previous book. It starts off by following the original story of Ali Baba, told in a fairly funny way, but starts to diverge when evil brother Kassim gets stuck in the robbers' cave and chopped up - the cave's magic powers keep him alive (in six pieces), and they also seem to be doing strange things to the band of thieves, including magical beard growth and the leader's obsession with the number 40. The thieves turn out to include characters from other Arabian Nights, such as Aladdin and Sinbad the Porter, whose own stories also tie in with the Ali Baba plot, and set the stage for the storytelling showdown in the Palace of Beautiful Women, which turns out to be the frame for the trilogy.
Of course, with a storytelling showdown, the one you want on your side is Scheherezade, whose own tale comes up in the third book. As with Ali Baba, this starts off as a fairly faithful (if comedically enhanced) retelling of the traditional story, but quickly gathers extra trappings of vengeful djinni and sorcerous mothers-in-law. The story here is good and well-told, but the ending is extremely lame, with a dose of deus ex machina and a gaping plot-hole gleefuly papered over - disappointing, but not worth getting too upset over.
Do you need to read the first book of the trilogy to appreciate the rest? Not sure; it helps to understand some of the jokes when Sinbad Jr appears in book 2, but they're not exactly subtle or complicated so you'd probably be OK. I'd recommend starting with book 1 anyway, but you're not missing that much if you decide to skip it; books 2 and 3 I'd recommend to anyone.