It’s taken me a while to get around to this review. I’m honestly not sure what to say about Saladin Ahmed’s debut, which was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula and won a Locus Award. There were things that bugged me — at some points the story felt kind of awkward, and the pacing seemed to move in fits and starts. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, except to say it felt like a first novel.
But despite the occasional awkwardness, I enjoyed Throne of the Crescent Moon tremendously. The language and setting were beautiful and it was a joy reading a fantasy adventure that wasn’t straight out of medieval Europe.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is set in the city of Dhamsawaat, a second-world analog to the Baghdad of the 1001 Arabian Nights. It follows Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, an aging ghul hunter, the last of his profession, who is nearing retirement. He longs for the time he can relax and enjoy his tea while watching the bustle of his beloved hometown pass him by. But when the woman he loves sends an injured orphan whose parents were murdered by ghuls to him, Adoulla heads back into the desert to track down the demonic creatures, joined by his young ward, the Dervish swordsman Raseed.
The pair quickly discover the ghul threat is much greater than anticipated when they meet Zamia a shapeshifting lion-girl from a nomadic tribe slaughtered by the ghuls. The trio returns to Dhamsawaat to warn the city.
Of course the city’s Kalif dismiss Adoulla’s warnings as the ravings of an old man, even as the ghuls attack Zamia in Adoulla’s home. Only the mysterious Falcon Prince, a rebel agitator seeking the throne, shows any interest in the ghul attacks, and his motives may not be altogether pure.
The story moves briskly to a climax in the throne room, with Adoulla, Raseed and Zamia joined by Adoulla’s elderly friends the mage Dawoud and his wife, the alchemist Litaz.
Adoulla has a beautiful story arc. Here is a man who has sacrificed everything he cares about to serve his God and destroy evil. He has given up the love of his life, his chance for peace and rest, and, during the course of the novel, most of his worldly possessions in his fight against evil.
I also appreciate that many of the heroes in Throne of the Crescent Moon were elderly. Adoulla constantly has an air of “I’m too old for this shit,” but he never steps aside for the young swordsman and shapeshifter to take the point. Indeed, he recruits his fellow retirees, and THEY are the ones that end up victorious.
As Scott Lynch put it during my interview with him:
“This is the story of some fifty-somethings kicking ass, and, oh yeah, there’s the lion-girl and the dude with the sword.”
It also provides a possible allegory for the rival factions of Islam. I’m no scholar of Islam, but I see parallels between the Sunni/Shia schisms and the relationships that Adoulla, Raseed and Zamia have with God. Each character is a Chosen One and they all worship the same God. Yet they are all completely different in their devotion, they are contemptuous of each other’s devotion and they cannot see how their God could accept these others.
I think that’s what resonated the most with me in Throne of the Crescent Moon. Characters with radically different ideas of God were able to put aside those differences and work for the common good.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is the first in a series, with a second novel due next year hopefully. And while I did find some tentativeness in this novel, the beautiful worldbuilding and big ideas more than made up for it. Indeed, I expect great things from Saladin’s upcoming work. The potential in Throne is boundless.
And I’ve also got a bunch of short stories to tide me over until the sequel drops.