As a finalist for both the Nebula and the Campbell awards for his short fiction, Saladin Ahmed's fantasy debut, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is doubtless one of the most eagerly awaited SFF debuts of 2012. Billed as a fantasy adventure with all the magic of The Arabian Nights, Ahmed's debut is just that.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is definitely a throwback book, reminiscent of sword & sorcery novels that were so popular during 80s. A bit like Blake Charlton's Spellwright, the book is an homage to novels from that era. It is the sort of tale that takes us back in time; to a time when authors such as David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman dominated the New York Times bestseller list with their popular series. And given some of these writers' popularity today, it appears that there could well be a big market for novels such as Throne of the Crescent Moon.
Here's the blurb:
One of the year's most anticipated fantasy debuts, from a finalist for the Nebula and Campbell Awards.
The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, land of djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, Khalifs and killers, is at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms.
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat, just wants a quiet cup of tea. A fat old man who has grown weary of hunting monsters and saving lives, he's more than ready to retire from his dangerous vocation. But when an old flame's family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter's path.
Adoulla's young assistant Raseed, a hidebound holy warrior whose prowess is matched only by his piety, is eager to deliver God's justice. But even as Raseed's sword is tested by ghuls and manjackals, his soul is tested when he and Adoulla cross paths with the tribeswoman Zamia.
Zamia Badawi, Protector of the Band, has been gifted with the power of the Lion-Shape, but shunned by her people for daring to take up a man's title. She lives only to avenge her father's death. Until she learns that Adoulla and his allies also hunt her father's killer. Until she meets Raseed.
When they learn that the murders and the Falcon Prince's brewing revolution are connected, the companions must race against time - and struggle against their own misgivings - to save the life of a vicious despot. In so doing they discover a plot for the Throne of the Crescent Moon that threatens to turn Dhamsawaat, and the world itself, into a blood-soaked ruin.
As a throwback book, Throne of the Crescent Moon embraces a lot of the traditional tropes of the sword and sorcery subgenre. Which, truth be told, will either please or put off readers. Fans of the "New Grit" movement and the school of hard knocks established by George R. R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, and Richard Morgan, among others, might have a hard time getting into this "lighter" offering. In Ahmed's debut, the heroes are good, the villains are evil. Shades of gray are few and far between, as is habitually the case with sword and sorcery tales. The forces of good always beat the odds and manage to come out on top, with secret knowledge or power falling into their lap in the nick of time. The whole Good vs Evil shebang, once more. To his credit, Saladin Ahmed has a few surprises in store for his readers. But nevertheless, Throne of the Crescent Moon has a very traditional feel to it. Which is not inherently a negative thing, mind you, provided that readers are prepared to read such a work. On the other hand, readers who prefer subversion of these same tropes and clichés, and love authors known to do just that might have a hard time getting into this novel. Personally, though you are well aware that I much prefer grittier SFF books and series, as a child of the 80s I mostly enjoyed this homage to the works which made me fall in love with the genre. Indeed, it sort of made me feel like a teenager again.
The worldbuilding is reminiscent of The Arabian Nights, no question about it. Unfortunately, we only get a few glimpses of Ahmed's universe. I'm probably a victim of my own expectations, but I was looking forward to much more depth in that department. With the plot occurring in a pseudo-Islamic world and with Saladin Ahmed himself a Muslim, I was expecting more insight and depth regarding the religion, the traditions, and the customs of the various races and societies. The vast majority of SFF authors are Christians, and thus their depictions of Islam or pseudo-variations of that religion are tainted by their own religious and spiritual beliefs. Hence, I was hoping that the author would delve a bit deeper and offer us something a bit different, something a bit more genuine in that regard. Mind you, my expections stemmed from the fact that I thought that Throne of the Crescent Moon would be an epic fantasy novel and not a sword and sorcery offering. Depth habitually gives way to action and adventure in sword and sorcery. In addition, from a marketing standpoint, publishing an Islamic fantasy novel in the USA may not be the key to achieving commercial success at the moment. Still, it will be interesting to see and discover more of the world and its people as the story progresses in the upcoming sequels.
Ahmed's evocative prose creates a colorful imagery. Sights, smells, sounds; the author makes the scenes come alive as you read along.
Often, what truly makes a fantasy debut stand out is the imaginative magic system it features. Interestingly enough, Ahmed went down the classical path for his own, coming up with something straight out of AD&D. Again, this may pull the heartstrings of nostalgic readers, or annoy the hell out of them.
In true sword and sorcery fashion, the characterization is all tropes and clichés. You have your wise and cranky aging wizard sick of it all, but forced to go at it once again in order to save the world. The kick-ass, well-nigh unbeatable swordsman. The ferocious female who's no damsel in distress. And more. Having said that, for all the tropes and the clichés, Ahmed created an endearing bunch of characters.
The pace is good. Ahmed keeps it fun and interesting, with not a single sluggish moment found from start to finish. The many action sequences keep the rhythm crisp, and you breeze through the book in no time. Weighing in at a tentative 288 pages, it will be interesting to see if SFF fans will show qualms about paying hardcover price for such a short-length work. Then again, keeping in mind that Throne of the Crescent Moon was never meant to be a doorstopper epic fantasy novel, for a sword and sorcery book the price is right.
Saladin Ahmed's fantasy debut is a quick and entertaining read. Throne of the Crescent Moon works extremely well as a throwback novel, and I'm curious to see how well it will be received compared to quality debuts that hit the shelves in recent years, namely those of Patrick Rothfuss, Naomi Novik, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Brian Ruckley, Brandon Sanderson, and Bradley P. Beaulieu.
As a sword and sorcery work, Throne of the Crescent Moon is nonetheless a world away from the epic fantasy works that topped the bestseller lists these last few years. And yet, if Daw Books markets it to the appropriate crowd, Ahmed debuts could create some waves in 2012.
If you are looking for a book that will bring you back to the action/adventure fantasy tales of your teenage years (provided you are a child of the 80s, of course), Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon should scratch that itch!