Saladin Ahmed’s debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is both something new and something very familiar in the genre of fantasy. Inspired as much by the fairytales of medieval Arabia and Persia as by the plot structures of high fantasy, the result is an engaging mixture. Featuring swashbuckling dervishes, powerful alchemists, and a ponderous ghoul hunter looking for retirement as the main protagonist, the book is as fast-paced and full of action as one might demand, and kept me up all night to finish it despite the present ravages of a bad cold virus. To be sure, Ahmed is unembarrassed about the use of classic fantasy tropes, albeit restructured into a loose allegory of the medieval Arab world – but what the book perhaps lacks in depth it more than makes up for in charm. The variegated characters are lively and engaging, although somewhat one-dimensional, and the writing achieves a surprising degree of emotional seriousness for what is a fairly unpretentious fantasy novel. This is aided by the emphasis on the religious dimension of life in the world of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, something traditionally underplayed in action-oriented fantasy. (The religion, of course, is an immediately recognizable adaptation of Islam.)
The plot centers around a conspiracy in the city of Dhamsawaat, the crowded million-strong capital of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, perhaps something akin to Baghdad. An upstart figure of great magical skill calling himself the Falcon Prince is fomenting rebellion against the bad Khalif for his arrogant neglect of the poor of his city, while in the meantime a shadowy evil of unprecedented power is cruelly murdering people left and right to unleash a devastating necromancy on the city. Dr Adoullah Makhslood, a grumpy wizardlike figure representing one of the last of the order of ghul-hunters has to set out once more to identify this threat and counter it, aided by his dervish assistant Raseed, whose main worry is for his religious purity in the face of the temptations of teenage manhood. As the plot develops, other companions join in, such as a shapeshifting Badawi girl (the word meaning singular ‘Bedouin’ in Arabic) seeking revenge for her band, homesick alchemist friends of Adoullah, and the ghul-hunter’s old flame, the madam of the city’s main brothel. Together, they must race against time as well as the ambitions of the Falcon Prince to stop the underworldly threat to Dhamsawaat and the Throne of the Crescent Moon itself.
All this is larded with a fairly considerable degree of violence and a highly enjoyable use of cultural and religious details from the world of the Persian poets and Aladdin-type fairytales, deftly managing to stay just this side of an appeal to Orientalism that would become annoying. The plot is well conceived, although I personally expected from early on a particular twist at the end that did not actually happen, but to my mind would have provided a tidier and more ambiguous ending. As it stands, the story suffers slightly from the flatness of the characters and a too neat division between good guys and bad guys, but not to a degree that interferes with enjoying it. In any case, sequels are in the works, and perhaps this will allow a greater development of the characters as well as the world-setting to occur, and I am certainly looking forward to reading those.
Overall, Throne of the Crescent Moon is somewhere between G.A. Effinger’s more brooding and dark Budayeen Nights and the intelligent-sex-and-violence novels of Richard Morgan, although so far Ahmed has been quite chaste. This is no faint praise, and it well deserves to win the Hugo Award for which it has been nominated. It is an enaging book, and one hopes the sequels will live up to the promise outlined. If so, this may portent a promising trend to remove the genre of fantasy from its traditional romantic-feudal European moorings and placing it in any of the great cultures and civilizations in other parts of the world – less explored, but no less deserving of the fun and accessible treatment Saladin Ahmed has given this one.