Haji really has two separate plots which, although they do intertwine to a certain degree, never really unite. One, centering around the title character, involves the invasion of the Chib empire by three mysterious black ships which seem to move without either wind or crew, even coming up onto the shore and pressing overland towards the Chib capitol. Haji is a young man from a rural town who accompanies Commander Cho of the Chib army in an attempt to stop the ships. The army is slaughtered, but Haji and Cho find themselves mysteriously transported to the far-away mountains of the neighboring country of Liacori.
It is here that they meet up with the primary players in the other plot, two roguish mountain men named Phraetissi and Vagrani. These two, with a wink and a grin, offer their services as body guards to escort Cho and Haji back to their homes for a fee once they arrive. Cho grudgingly accepts, and they set off. However, Phraetissi and Vagrani quickly become involved in a conflict with the most powerful crime lord in the mountains and his deadly lieutenant, a conflict which proves related to the black ships and the reason for their arrival.
Despite its three hundred page length, Haji has a complex story to tell. There's plenty of plot twists, of course, but there are also some interesting sub plots and some fairly good character development. Although it was far from perfect, there weren't any real crippling flaws. The beginning was a little slow, but it picked up once Phraetissi and Vagrani were introduced. The prose itself was a little rocky-the author sometimes gets a little obtuse in his wording, uses some confusing "-ing" constructions, and is generally a bit clunky-but overall it was enjoyable and readable. The prose quality actually improved as the book progressed. Characterization is a mixed bag. Sadly, the title character-Haji-is probably the worst main player. His personality was usually pretty flat, and he tended to react to other people's actions rather than doing anything of his own. Also, the villains have a habit of cackling wickedly over their evil deeds. However, the mountain men Phraetissi and Vagrani made up for some of the lackings in the other characters-they were very entertaining throughout, even if some of their jibes were awkward.
There were also a lot of anachronisms-from Haji calling his father "dad" and the privy a "bathroom" to Phraetissi visiting a casino, complete with special tokens, with slot machines to put them in, with cherries and sevens. Peasants own extensive libraries, mountain bandits are referred to as "hillbillies", and there are "hotels". This also wasn't too huge a problem, but it disrupted the mediaeval atmosphere of the setting, and I didn't know what might turn up next. The author didn't really discount the possibility of a steam-powered machine gun showing up.
Overall, Haji was something of a mixed experience-although it was entertaining enough, with some good characters, there's plenty of other books that offer more and better, with more skilled writing. Of course, there's always the worthy goal of supporting new writers and small presses-so, if you're interested in doing that, Haji might not be a bad pick.
Sean T. M. Stiennon is a writer, reader, and occasional reviewer of speculative fiction. His publications include several in Deep Magic: The E-zine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and a recent story in Amazing Journeys Magazine, and he also does reviews for Deep Magic. For more information, visit his author page