So when I learned that Saladin Ahmed (whose "Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela" I marked for consideration for the aborted Best American Fantasy 4 anthology in 2010) had a debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, due to come out this month, I was intrigued. I was curious to see how an American of Arab descent would go out portraying elements of Arabic culture in a secondary-world fantasy setting. What I found was a rich, excellent tale (one that I suspect is but the opener for a series of tales in this setting) that utilizes the best qualities of several genres of fiction, including sword and sorcery adventure tales, to create a memorable tale.
Ahmed begins Throne of the Crescent Moon with a horrific yet enticing "hook." We see a terrified guardsman struggling vainly to overcome his fear at being a prisoner of a gore-splattered gaunt man and a creature of shadows and jackal skin:
Nine days. Beneficent God, I beg you, let this be the day I die!
The guardsman's spine and neck were warped and bent but still he lived. He'd been locked in the red lacquered box for nine days. He'd seen the days' light come and go through the lid-crack. Nine days.
He held them close as a handful of dinars. Counted them over and over. Nine days. Nine days. Nine days. If he could remember this until he died he could keep his soul whole for God's sheltering embrace.
He had given up on remembering his name.
The following action in this scene is gruesome, yet never feels gratuitous. Ahmed quickly establishes the metaphysical contest between the forces of God and the nefarious minions of the Fallen Angel (analogues to God and Shaitan/Satan) that feels more alive, active, and ominous than the bog standard "over the past several millennia, the forces of the Dark Lord have slowly plotted how to wrest the ultimate power source unto themselves." This carries over in the stories of the ghul-hunting Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, whose piety is not as much represented in his erudite nature but in his charity and bon homme attitude toward those around him; his zealot assistant, the young Raseed bas Raseed, whose vigilance contains traces of rigidity; and Zamia Badawi, the last scion of a nomadic clan who has been granted by the holy angels of God the ability to shapeshift into a lioness with silver claws and teeth.
These three, bound together by happenstance as much as by their dedication to wiping out the flesh/soul-eating ghuls and their masters, are refreshing characters to read, as their motivations are much more than the baser, self-centered ones often displayed in the so-called "gritty fantasies" of the previous few years. Ahmed does an excellent job of balancing out their diverse personalities, as the banter-filled dialogue between them feels much more natural than the norm for secondary-world fantasies. This is not to say that there are no serious moments full of gravitas. There are, but these moments are balanced out by moments of levity, creating a fuller, more balanced rendering of not just the three main characters, but several of the secondary characters, including the mysterious Falcon Prince, who seeks to overthrow the Khalif for reasons beyond those initially made clear to the reader, and Adoulla's old friend Dawoud.
Dynamic, well-drawn characters can only go so far if the setting is not as rich and full of life. The kingdoms of the Crescent Moon feel alive because Ahmed has taken great care to imbue them with those little touches from "traditional sayings" to the use of poetry and proverb to set up character interactions. It is here where Ahmed's fictional setting goes far beyond the mere appropriations of a culture discussed in the opening paragraph. There is nothing "exotic" about this setting; believable people occupy a setting that easily could be a home to historical fiction as it is to a sword and sorcery-style adventure. The city of Dhamsawaat, the seat of most of Throne of the Crescent Moon's action, is an active, bustling place that contains much more than just thieves, assassins, and nefarious magicians. There is the sense of people who live their lives following trades, trying to advance in wisdom, understanding, and of course social standing. Although not much space is devoted to these other elements in this book, there is at least a hint of "normalcy" occurring around the dangers and thrills of the three hunters' search for the source of these powerful ghuls that are afflicting people near and inside the city.
Too often, violence in this type of fantasy is distorted and trivialized. Although there are several violent scenes, there is never the sense that these actions do not disturb the characters. They are haunted by their pasts, feeling guilt over actions that they felt were necessary at the time to prevent a greater evil. Toward the end of the novel, Ahmed explores this in great detail with the climactic fight and its immediate aftermath. Revenge, whether it's for holy reasons or due to ambitious desire, is not treated as just a plot device. Characters grow and react to the changes caused by the pains inflicted on them and their desires to alleviate that suffering. Zamia in particular saw some interesting changes in her character as the story progressed. Frequently, female warriors are set up as stiff, almost frigid characters who seem to "melt" when a male takes an interest in her. Although there were certainly times in the novel where I wonder if something similar was going to happen with her character, Ahmed manages to establish a happy medium between the fearsome Amazonian warrior and the simpering maiden (read, there's affection, but little to no simpering). Zamia is just as vital to the success of the trio's holy mission as is either Adoulla or Rasheed. She refuses to be marginalized. She is a Protector in more than just name and her fights, her injuries, and her reactions to them are shown just as much as the other two. Her character certainly is more nuanced and has greater potential for future stories than other Amazonian characters who have appeared in other sword and sorcery stories.
These elements, when combined together, make for an exciting read that does not skimp on the implications of the actions done. Ahmed has crafted a novel that quickly moves from scene to scene, but somehow also managing to explore the characters and settings in vivid, intriguing detail. His prose is excellent and his characterizations are well-done. If there were a flaw to be noted, it would be that in a few places, particularly toward the end, the action unfolds so quickly that it was difficult at times to discern what was transpiring. That is a minor concern, as on the whole, Throne of the Crescent Moon is an excellent debut novel from one of the more talented writers to have emerged over the past five years. I will be awaiting with anticipation for Ahmed's next novel, as Throne of the Crescent Moon satisfied my reading expectations on every count and then exceeded a few of them.