Some readers might first discover Throne of the Crescent Moon through a review such as this one, others might be captured by the cover, yet others might hear about it through word of mouth. These are all common ways for a novel to find new readers, to catch the eye of potential fans. Throne of the Crescent Moon, however, has another aspect that might attract readers browsing at their favourite bookstore: the name of the author stretched large across the cover. Saladin Ahmed. In a genre dominated by Georges and Patricks, Robins and Brandons, Ahmed’s starkly Muslim name is an anomaly, a curiousity that promises to be something different, something exciting. Of course, a name is just a name, and the story between the covers of Ahmed’s debut could be a trite rehash of the typical kitchen-boy-saves-the-world novel that we’re all sick of, his ethnic background and religious heritage could have no impact on his novel, leaving readers with a story as prototypical as the cartoony cover art—but just cracking open the novel and reading the first page makes true on those promises. This is something different, something with balls, something worth getting excited about.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is the debut novel from acclaimed short fiction author Saladin Ahmed and follows one of the larger adventures of Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat who was first introduced to readers in Ahmed’s short fiction, including the wonderful Where Virtue Lives. Throne of the Crescent Moon is a Sword & Sorcery novel planted firmly in the tradition of the works of Leiber and Howard, and throws readers in alongside a cast of damaged, but eminently likeable heroes of sometimes questionable moral character (but always, in the end, with their hearts in the right place) and serves up more action, atmosphere and memorable scenes than many novels three times its length.
The beginning of the novel promises much adventure, seeing Adoulla and his apprentice, Raseed bas Raseed, leave the city to explore the mystery around a series of ghoulish murders, only to return a short while later. For a novel that falls so firmly and proudly in the tradition of classic S&S, the pace is surprisingly considered and even grows lackadaisical during these middle chapters when Ahmed’s heroes are unravelling the secrets of their foe while confined to a small townhouse in a wonderful city that just begs to be explored. The glimpses we get of the city of Dhamsawaat during these chapters are so interesting, however, that I couldn’t help but wish that Ahmed had used the city as a continuous method of pulling the plot forward and demanding that the band of Ghul Hunters explore its secrets. Ahmed so delicately and intelligently builds his world that it comes to life effortlessly before the reader. This genre struggles so much with heavy-handed authors fallen in love with their creations and it’s refreshing to see an author like Ahmed who knows how to organically grow a setting and let it become a character in and of itself without overwhelming the rest of the narrative.
As an orphan-boy, as a ghul hunter’s apprentice, as a young rascal and sometime hero, and now, as an old fart, he needed to breathe these scents. The brewing cinnamon-paint of the fortune tellers, the shared wine barrels of gamblers and thieves forgetting their troubles, the skew- ers of meat that dripped sizzling juices onto open fire pits and, here and there, a few flowers that seemed to be struggling to prove that this was a public garden and not a seedy tavern . . . Adoulla took it all in. Home.
Then there were the sounds. His calling had taken him many places, but Adoulla had yet to find a people as loud as those of his home quar- ter. The children and the mothers scolding the children. The roving storytellers and those who applauded and heckled them. The whores who offered warm arms for the night, and the men who haggled shame- lessly with them. All of them going about their business in the loudest voices they could find. For cruel fate or kind, Adoulla thought, these were his people. He had been born among them, and he hoped very much to die quietly among them. (p. 107)
In terms of atmosphere and evocative description, Ahmed can sit with the best that the genre has to offer, and the sense of place in Throne of the Crescent Moon is wonderful, allowing the reader to feel like they’re right there alongside the heroes in the dusty, depraved city of Dhamsawaat (when not, literally, confined to a sickbed alongside one of the characters.)
Of the three main characters, the most interesting isn’t world-weary Adoulla, or mysterious Zamia, though they’re both admirable in their own right, but young, conflicted Raseed bas Raseed, a young dervish who finds that battling his inner demons to be an even bigger challenge than those that threaten with tooth and claw. A mix of brash confidence and all-too-familiar self-doubt provide the foundation for Raseed’s conflict as his ascetic religious side wars with the raging hormones that plague teenagers no matter how strictly they’ve been raised.
These religious elements do not seek to purvey any sort of hidden agenda or message on the part of the author, and Ahmed is not trying to pass any sort of judgement on religion, but God and religion are at the core of the culture and the characters of Throne of the Crescent Moon, and in such a setting, where religion is inseparable from politics, magic and culture, and at the core of every conflict, both internal and external, faced by the characters, it’s impossible to avoid.
The Heavenly Chapters decreed that ghul-makers were damned to the Lake of Flame. The Chapters spoke of an ancient, corrupted age when wicked men commanded whole legions of the things from miles away. But those times were past. In all his years of ghul hunting, Adoulla had never seen a man make more than two of the monsters at a time— and this always from a few hundred yards away at most. “Troubling,” he said again.
He instructed Raseed to cut a small scrap from the boy’s scarlet- stained shirt. Other than the name of its maker, the blood of a ghul’s victim was the best component for a tracking spell. The creatures them- selves would likely prove easy enough to find. But he would need to head closer to the scene of the slaying, and get away from the city’s teeming, confusing life-energies, to cast an effective tracking spell.
Adoulla only prayed that he would be able to find the creatures before they fed again. As the silent prayer echoed in his mind, he felt a weary determination rising in his heart. There was more bloody work to be done. O God, why must it be me every time? (p. 15)
Ahmed handles it well and it adds a richness to his text, even for a reader like myself who’s agnostic to the core and often bothered by heavy-handed religious subtext, but I feel it necessary to forewarn readers of this aspect of the novel. The word “god” is found on 194 of the Advance Review Copy’s 274 pages. It’s a pervasive presence, but ultimately at the core of Ahmed’s story.
To balance out the serious nature of these religious aspects is Ahmed’s wonderful sense of humour. Most often, this comes out as a result of the diametrically opposed personalities of jaded Adoulla and keen, excitable Raseed.
“Doctor!” Raseed had been silent for much of their walk home, and Adoulla had almost forgotten he was there. The dervish was clearly scandalized by the delay. Adoulla wished he were young enough to believe that zeal and an urge to combat monsters were enough to fill one’s stomach. But the years had taught him otherwise, and he had a long day ahead of him.
“I’ve had only half a breakfast, boy. I need sustenance to think clearly, and a handful of moments here will matter little enough. The Heavenly Chapters say ‘A starving man builds no palaces.’”
“They also say ‘For the starving man, prayer is better than food.’”
Adoulla gave up. He grunted to Raseed, thanked Munesh and walked on, cracking shells and munching noisily. (p. 20)
Ahmed uses it to effectively diffuse any overly melodramatic moments, bouying some of the slower moment in the middle of the novel, and it often provides a welcome ray of light when the world seems too dark and salvation looks out of reach for our heroes.
For all of Throne of the Crescent Moon’s excitement, however, and the density of the storytelling in its slim page count, it still feels like the prologue to a larger work, establishing the characters, the world and an overall plot conflict for a much broader story. That said, this novel stands well on its own in that it presents a full story arc with a beginning, a middle and an end, but readers will be desperate for the sequel to experience the repercussions of some monumental events in its final chapters. Presumably, given its roots in traditional S&S, Ahmed’s series will continue to move its overall plot forward through a series of similarly stand-alone novels featuring reoccurring characters, conflicts and set pieces.
There’s a wonderful soul to Throne of the Crescent Moon and, with all the skill and eloquence he showed in his short fiction, Ahmed has brought to life a wonderful cast of characters and introduced readers to a thrilling and interesting new world to explore. Despite some minor reservations about pacing, Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is a confident debut that, alongside contemporaries like N.K. Jemisin (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), Nnedi Okorafor (Who Fears Death) or Howard Andrew Jones (The Desert of Souls), isn’t afraid to take Fantasy from the comfortable realms of faux-Europe and push against the staid boundaries of the genre. I expect big things of Ahmed in 2012 and look eagerly forward to his future stories in this setting, whether long-form or short.