How do you do fantasy different? How do you take one of the oldest of our genres and make it feel different? How can you stand out among legions of Tolkien devotees? A good start is being Saladin Ahmed. His debut has gathered a lot of buzz since it dropped back in February and I couldn’t fight it. I gave in to hardcover. Scandalous, I know, but well worth it.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is now! Inside the flap time! That’s right, I said inside the flap! This is hardcover territory after all and there’s a lot of space on those flaps. Let’s make it happen.
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 behind these 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 savings 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 warriors 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 her Band, has been gifted with the near-mythical power of the lionshape, 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.
So first impressions. If anyone out there is working on being a writer in their own right and is having trouble with an opening chapter, look no further. Throne is an amazing example of a first chapter, a serious hook that will propel you on to chapter four before you recover from that first one. Following this excellent hook, the novel has a pacing I this is more spot on than a lot of stuff I’ve read. Even in the most intense moments, there’s something small to keep it from becoming too much, a breath of fresh air to make it feel more real. Leading up to the Final Confrontation, Adoulla drops a joke. I laughed out loud and the little bit of inanity in this super serious time of the book. The loud laughter was sleightly awkward because I was at work, but damnit, they’d laugh too. I won’t ruin in here, but you’ll know what I mean when you find it. It’s a perfect example though of the delicate balance between those moments and the dramatic and intense.
That’s just straight up good writing. What about the genre stuff? That’s where a lot of the buzz has been coming from. Well clearly, it is an Arabia based fantasy world rather than a medieval England based world. That’s huge. I can count on one hand how many faux-Arabias I’ve read before this. One was a seroiusly dated Gary Gygax penned novel which was just a DnD campaign without the THACO tables. Ru Emerson’s Night Threads books had some Arab based settings but only partially. I can’t even think of anything beyond that so getting this fresh setting not normally seen in American genre books is like walking into a candy story and finding out there’s something other than chocolate and vanilla. It’s the kind of thing I actively seek out and find hugely enjoyable like Kylie Chan’s Hong Kong or the Russia out of Night Watch. So it’s Arab instead of English. How does it stack up? Awesomely. The city of Dhamsawaat is almost a character in itself. I’d put Dhamsawaat in the same category as Camorr or King’s Landing.
Setting only goes so far. What else does Throne bring to the table? Ahmed gives us a fresh perspective on character. Adoulla is sixty. Epic fantasies are the realm of young untested warriors setting out to make their way in the world. Not here. Adoulla has two young’uns under his wing but this is his story, he is our reluctant hero. I don’t mean reluctant because he’s unsure of himself and if he can save the world. Adoulla has saved the world dozens of times, he’s more than comfortable with himself. Well… not the aches and pains of a body betraying him with age. He’s reluctant in that damnit he wants his tea. He’s at times crude and surly (I have a special affinity for surly) but when push comes to shove, gets the job done anyways.
And his young’us are tormented by their own demons, those figurative ones in between fighting the real ones. Zamia’s entire tribal band is slaughtered while she’s supposed to be their protector. Raseed is rightously strict with his holy vows as a dervish. But they’re both teenagers who don’t really feel happy about making eyes at each other but they do anyways. Yeah, teenagers making awkward eyes at each other is a story as old as time, but it works in this setting with these characters. They both feel bad about making eyes at each other and keep themselves from doing it. Emotions denied make for better stories than people getting what they want.
Oh hey the ghuls! I’ve been going on and on and haven’t even touched on them yet. They’re right proper Arabian ghuls and just as mean and nasty as you could want. The action flows without ever relying too much on one character’s strengths. There’s a lot of back and forth between Adoulla’s magic, Raseed’s swordplay and Zamia’s animal maulings. The plot that these enjoyable characters claw their way though starts out simple. “Some monsters killed this kid’s family. Go.” It’s sufficient to get things started but it mushrooms fast.
So I reined in my rambling there at the end and am trying to do so here, but I could seriously talk up the praises of this for a long time coming. And a lot of other people have done so. I am eagerly awaiting to go back to Dhamsawaat.