Even before his debuted novel was chosen for publication, Saladin Ahmed was being praised for his efforts in short fiction, where he introduced to readers his own particular brand of fantasy, one with a touch of the Arabian Nights. With Throne of the Crescent Moon, his first full-length novel and start to a new series, it seemed he wished to continue in the same vein, providing us with a well-plotted, richly transcribed tale of ghul-hunters, holy warriors and lion-men. More importantly, the story remains set in the cadre of a decidedly Arabic culture, a welcome change from the often monotonous setting of your average fantasy fare.
The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, home to djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, are at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. It is up to a handful of heroes to learn the truth of the killings:
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, ‘the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,’ just wants a quiet cup of tea. Three score and more years old, he has grown weary of hunting monsters and saving lives, and is more than ready to retire from his dangerous and demanding vocation. But when an old flame’s family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter’s path.
Raseed bas Raseed, Adoulla’s young assistant, is a hidebound holy warrior whose prowess is matched only by his piety. But even as Raseed’s sword is tested by ghuls and manjackals, his soul is tested when he and Adoulla cross paths with the tribeswoman Zamia.
Zamia Badawi, Protector of the Band, has been gifted with the near-mythical power of the lion-shape, but shunned by her people for daring to take up a man’s title. She lives only to avenge her father’s death. Until she learns that Adoulla and his allies also hunt her father’s killer. Until she meets Raseed.
When they learn that the murders and the Falcon Prince’s brewing revolution are connected, the companions must race against time - and struggle against their own misgivings - to save the life of a vicious despot. In so doing they discover a plot for the Throne of the Crescent Moon that threatens to turn Dhamsawaat, and the world itself, into a blood-soaked ruin.
Throne of the Crescent Moon sets off at a brisk pace - if nothing else, this book is pacy - with Ahmed throwing gruesome murders, and strangely charismatic revolutionary bandits in the very first chapters. At the same time, Ahmed deftly sets out the groundwork, bringing in bits of history of Dhamsawaat (the fictional city in which the novel is set) and allowing us to establish a good rapport with Adoulla Makhslood: principal character, and ghul-hunter extraordinaire. Or something like it, as he himself would think.
One of Ahmed’s strengths in Throne of the Crescent Moon is to keep his heroes humble. From the start, each is possessed of limitations which make them human, that which ultimately makes them relatable. Adoulla’s age is his one great weakness, a weakness perceived by his entourage, and more intimately so by himself. Raseed’s blind adherence to his faith is one which inevitably is called into question at every turn. Zamia’s sense of duty to her band is a heavy weight which she bears with difficulty. And the list goes on. But these intelligent choices in characterization are part of what make this book stand out - separate it from otherwise empty magical adventures.
This is not to say that Throne of the Crescent Moon isn’t a whole heap of fun itself. To the contrary. Its other most redeeming quality, I would say, is its truly escapist nature. This is in part derived from the freshness of the setting. The effects of this particular choice of setting are seen not just in descriptions and such, but also in the vocabulary, dialogue, and the themes broached. To be fair, others have done this before Ahmed, but he certainly has written the best Arabian-tinged fantasy I’ve read in a while.
And in general, the fun can be found in Ahmed’s wonderfully exciting storytelling. Indeed, with its more than fair share of bandits, conspiracies, magical crises, evil spirits, romantic entanglements, and so forth, one could hardly say Throne of the Crescent Moon doesn’t strive to be entertaining. At the same time, it is a bit a victim of its own success, as at times its high-spirited narrative comes across as a bit too lighthearted for the ghul story it makes itself out to be. Partnered with the right dose of horror and thrills, the otherwise exuberant story could have been that much better.
That Throne of the Crescent Moon is Saladin Ahmed’s debut is surprising - one would rarely expect this level of quality in a first novel. But it means his writerly offerings can only get better. This first novel-length taste of his talent certainly wasn’t perfect, but it’s an adventure-filled Arabian tale I would easily recommend. Ultimately possessed of a jovial, romantic outlook, and littered touching characters, Throne of the Crescent Moon offers fantasy escapism of the best kind: imaginative and hugely riveting.
Saladin Ahmed's Website: http://www.saladinahmed.com/
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