PROS: Unusual, non-standard multidimensional characters that grow and change; a great sense of place and environment; the city as a character all of its own.
CONS: The ending is somewhat rushed; worldbuilding is a bit thin.
VERDICT: An early landmark work not only of the author, but of a new and underused stratum of fantasy.
The greatest city in the world is a tangled hive of people in the Crescent Kingdoms. A million people living cheek by jowl, living under an autocratic Khalif. Flashing swords, a rebel charismatic thief brewing revolution. And darker things brewing too, unknown to nearly all. A fantasy city inspired not by medieval London, Cologne or Paris, but by the height of the Arab renaissance of Baghdad and Cairo.
Dhamasawaat awaits. And if you mess with it, you mess with the Doctor. Doctor Adoulla.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is the debut novel from author Saladin Ahmed. Saladin has been making his name in the genre the last few years as a short story writer (with a Nebula nomination to his credit), and also putting out his shingle doing critiques of novels and as a university instructor teaching writing. With such a background, and the promise of fantasy with wellsprings of inspiration from cultures and societies under-explored in genre, I, and many others, highly anticipated his first novel.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is the story of Doctor Adoulla. He’s spent a long life fighting dark magic in and around the aforementioned city of Dhamasawaat, dealing with magicians and the things they summon and create to work evil. Not your typical fantasy protagonist; he’s old, a bit world-weary, earthy and so wonderfully rounded. His partner in dealing with these evils is Raseed, a dervish who has devoted his skills and God-given gifts to fighting evil at the Doctor’s side. His asceticism, innocence and strong idealism can be summed up for Dungeons and Dragons fans as “An Arabian style Paladin”. This duo are soon joined by Zamia, last survivor of an attack that has destroyed her wasteland-dwelling tribe. She has unusual holy shapechanging powers all her own, and her desire to avenge her tribe lead her to Adoulla and Rasheed, and in fact alert them all to a threat that does not only threaten the three of them, but the entire city of Dhamasawaat.
Given the scale and scope of the novel and the characters, Throne of the Crescent Moon pretty firmly sits in the Sword and Sorcery end of the pool of Secondary World Fantasy. It’s scope and size are not large, sticking mainly to the city (and what a city!) and its environs. It’s is written in the third person focusing mainly from the point-of-view of the three main characters (working class people rather than nobles and princes) with a couple of interludes and a couple of POV shifts to Adoulla’s friends and allies, Litaz and Dawoud. Again, like Adoulla, the author has a preference for eschewing the usual “band of young people off on an quest” for some older, more mature characters who are firmly grounded in themselves, their relationships and their world. The writing lifts what might be stereotypes and brings the characters to life both inner and exterior, while simultaneously making Dhamasawaat one of the most evocatively described cities I’ve encountered recently in fantasy fiction. For example, when Adoullah and Raseed are trying to get out of their crowded city:
They walked a half-dozen long blocks and turned the corner into an uncrowded alley. It felt like a different city. The alleyway was cooler, shaded as it was by tall buildings on either side. A hard-eyed woman sat on her doorstep, and she looked up suspiciously from the basket she was weaving when the pair walked by. She and a bone thin poppy-chewer, who lay sprawled on another doorstep, apparently talking to the clouds, were the only people in the alley. Adoulla’s discerning nose detected stewed goat wafting from a window, and he greedily inhaled the smell.
“Watch your step, Doctor!” Even as the words left Raseed’s mouth Adoulla felt his sandal sink into a warm pile of camel shit. Adoulla cursed and scraped his foot on the stone. He turned back to curse again at the brownish smear behind him.
And found himself face-to-face with the Falcon Prince.
Name of God! Where did he come from? The man was nearly six and a half feet tall. Taller even than Adoulla, and rippling with muscle where Adoulla jiggled with fat. His black moustaches were meticulously groomed, and his handsome brown face split in a grin.
Out of the corner of his eye Adoulla saw Raseed turn and draw his sword. The Falcon took a wary step back. The thief looked at Raseed as one might a dangerous animal. But he smiled again as he spoke.
“Well, this is something one doesn’t see in every alley! A dervish of the Order and a ghul hunter–Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, I would guess.” The Prince’s manner was strangely casual, given the situation he had just fled.
Adoulla said nothing but let his face register surprise at being known outside of his home quarter.
“Yes, Doctor, I know of you. Had we time, I would repeat all of the praises that I have heard sung of you among the poor of the Scholar’s Quarter. But there are watchmen a few blocks behind me.”
“Murderer!” Raseed spat the word and took a step forward, but Adoulla threw an arm across the boy’s chest.
The Prince ignored the dervish and spoke to Adoulla. “Will you help me, Uncle? My next steps–and the lives of others–depend on whether the watchmen know my true path.”
So, a ghul orphaned boy was not enough for old Adoulla Makhslood today, eh, God? No, you had to involve your fat old servant in a mad usurper’s plots as well! Wonderful. Adoulla looked up at the Prince.
The basic story of the world-weary doctor dealing with one more threat before he hangs up his hat is a well worn trope, but it is lifted from the pedestrian by the addition of other elements. The Falcon Prince, who struggles against the Khalif and whose machinations and plans intersect with Adoullah, for one thing, as well as the individual character arcs of all of the POV characters provide a rich brew of plots and stories. And the novel ends with both character growth and development, and room for more should the author decide to continue to do so.
What didn’t work for me? Very little. For a slim volume, the worldbulding was a bit sparse for my taste, but the reader is nevertheless given enough to understand and propel herself through the story. Some of the pacing and plotting feels disjointed, especially toward the end when the pacing of the action scene needs a bit of work. The author is much more facile as a writer of character, scene and mood than the cut-and-thrust of conflict. For what its worth, I really only noticed it though in the climax conflict.
I want to spend a few words here comparing this book to a one I reviewed in this space not long ago, Howard Andrew Jones’ The Desert of Souls. I suspect many people might think that Throne of the Crescent Moon is just a “better and more authentic version” of Jones’ work, or a production line copy of same. That is extremely unfair to both authors and their books. In my review, I mentioned that Desert of Souls is historical fantasy with a touch of sword and sorcery. Throne of the Crescent Moon, as I suspected at the time, is secondary fantasy, sword and sorcery through and through, with historical overtones. Desert of Souls is a first-person recounting of a story; Throne of the Crescent Moon is a more traditional third person point of view. They are both very good books playing in the same sandbox, but doing very different things, and both are worth the time and effort to read.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is just about as good as you have heard, and the praise for it has been far and wide. I can tell you, O Reader, that you have not been mislead. If you have the slightest interest in the sword and sorcery genre, you owe it to yourself to get lost in the world of Dhamasawaat. The expansion of the usual settings away from those inspired by medieval northwestern Europe is extremely welcome, and Throne of the Crescent Moon will be seen as an early landmark of this trend.