Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (Indiebound, BookDepository, Amazon) is a number of things, but first and foremost, it’s a well executed sword and sorcery adventure in an excitingly realized world. It’s also a fantasy written by an Arab-American that takes its inspiration more from the traditions and mythologies of North Africa and the Middle East rather than the more common north and western European influence. It’s a fantasy that honors characters with age and experience, shows women in strength in a society with troubling views on women, presents religious characters with varying interpretations of piety, and gives fans a city of personality.

Doctor Adoulla Makhsood is the last ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat – he’s old, he’s fat and he’s ready to retire to a nice cup of tea. Raseed bas Raseed is his young, pious assistant and member of a warrior sect. Throw in Zamia, the last woman of a ‘barbarian’ band who happens to be a shapeshifter, and a few of Adoulla’s old and magically-talented colleagues and the result is a rather motley crew fighting to save the city from powerful and mysterious ancient evil.

Throne of the Crescent Moon follows a rather traditional model of sword and sorcery – a group of varied individuals band together to save their city. There are monsters of various sorts that need to be destroyed, there’s politics and fermenting revolution in the city, there is magic, and there is ancient evil to be stopped. The group has its internal differences, whether religious, age or nationality yet still work together to get the job done as each one brings an important talent to the mix. And the evil is mysterious and more powerful than any of them have faced before – as I hinted at above, it’s a near-perfect set-up for a traditional sword and sorcery adventure.

The world that Ahmed presents is clearly derived more from the lands of the Middle East and North Africa than the usual Western Europe analog. As someone who lives in the semi-arid American West and spends a lot of time in deserts, I love to see such lands portrayed in fantasy – especially when they take much of their mythological inspiration from traditions I’m less familiar with. Though Ahmed uses the lands of North Africa and the Middle East as a template to build from to great effect, he grows things into his own creation using tools such as monsters that feel different from those typically seen fantasy and the ruins of a long dead, magical civilization.

Dhamsawaat, a city of around a million people, is the jewel of the nation of Abassen, a nation that feels like a mix of ancient Egypt, Persia and Babylon with heat, deserts and a life-sustaining river built on the ruins of an ancient civilization. The journey of Adoulla and his allies is largely undertaken within the city of Dhamsawaat and Dhamsawaat is wonderfully realized – it’s huge with a walk to a different section of the city taking several hours, ‘traffic’ jams of people make it impossible to leave the city quickly, and lives of the rich and the poor are shown. The result is a presentation of Dhamsawaat with a refreshingly ‘realistic’ feel to it.

Religion is a very important part of the society created by Ahmed and the characters at the center of Throne of the Crescent Moon. The created religion draws immediate similarities to Islam, though it’s never specifically presented as a stand-in for Islam. However Ahmed shows the diversity of people and the followers of religion with differing versions of piety. Raseed is the classic pious, religious conservative who has been taught that suppressing one’s desires is key component of religious belief, which he channels into his notable battle skills. Adoulla heartily enjoys life’s pleasures such as good food and drink and has quite a sharp tongue – however, through his actions as ghul hunter and care for the wellbeing of people, Adoulla shows an equally pious belief. Other views from women and foreigners are also presented in an equally refreshing manner as everyone quotes scripture to support their views.

Ahmed fully presents this traditional and religious society, including the usual repression of women and foreigners. With so much talk lately about female character agency and how historically-based fantasy settings show repressed women and minorities simply because that is how it was perceived to be in our own world, Ahmed shows how to walk the fine line and look good doing it. Through Zamia and the alchemist Litaz, Ahmed shows women both young and old who are well-rounded, interesting and strong. Along the same lines, Throne of the Crescent Moon isn’t a (just) story about young and inexperienced kids trying to save the day – it’s more about an aged legend and his equally aged colleagues stepping up to save the day ‘one last time’ (though we of course no it won’t be the last time). It’s great to see a fantasy that truly recognizes and appreciates the experience, wisdom and cynicism of such characters.

I’ve seen reactions to Throne of the Crescent Moon that include ‘best debut of the year’ and similar. Well, it’s still early in the year, I’m terrible with absolutes, and I’m not sure I agree. However, I’m confident in saying that Throne of the Crescent Moon is one of the most promising debuts of the year and probably one of the most promising of the last several years. It’s good, it’s fun, it’s intelligent and it’s relatively short for a fantasy novel. It’s also the start of a trilogy that Ahmed has said will escalate in scope over the next two books. It looks like we’ll get to see Throne of the Crescent Moon evolve from a traditional sword and sorcery through various level of fantasy, ending as something more akin to epic fantasy. Whether that’s true or not, I look forward to the journey, and you should too.


Paul Weimer said...

Adoulla and his comrades are both tropes as characters, and utterly unique and well developed.

It's only his first novel, so the weaknesses I saw in this (more in terms of pacing and plotting) are sure to be improved with subsequent works...

Neth said...

Agreed. I didn't really get into the negatives since they were so minor and didn't really fit into the direction I took the review. There were a few minor pacing issues and some issues of personal taste for me, but nothing big enough to detract from the rest of the book.


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