Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

It says a lot about my beloved genres of choice that I find the cover of this book so fascinating. It’s a picture of the characters in the book, drawn in a dramatic array but doing things that make perfect sense for them to be doing, looking like the text describes them, and rendered in a slightly stylized, dynamic, fun way that evokes good comic books. The female lead is poised, but in a fluid, combative way rather than a somehow-point-both-tits-and-ass-at-the-viewer way. Their features have not been quietly rendered generically Caucasian. No stiffly drawn generic characters pulled from a box o’ illustrations. No bland, obtuse mess of geometric bits graphic-designed to death. Not even a vague mass of colors and shapes or an epic landscape that may or may not be accurate to the story, but evokes a fancy matte painting far more than the meat of the tale. There’s neither cost-cutting nor “no, seriously, this is a real book about important things and I am a sensible author” pretension. This is a book that is unashamed of being a fun, clever adventure story. (Of course, frequently the author has very little control over that, so I guess this is just a nod to the publishers? Anyways, I like it.)

Saladin Ahmed’s first novel draws from Arabian folklore ancient beyond telling and modern tropes both embraced and skewered. It’s the story of a city imperiled by forces supernatural and mundane. While wicked sorcerers and their pet ghuls poke at the fabric of reality, the entrenched ruling class harasses the poor. The central story is an adventure with swords and all sorts of magic, but the political situation (and here I use political as a shorthand for a very well-developed socioeconomic sense of the highly stratified city, international intrigue only hinted at, a complex but apparently universal religious system with many splinter groups of varying fanaticism, and so on) is at times more interesting. There are three major factions containing main characters and infinitely more around and within them, and no one has anyone else’s best interests entirely at heart.

That said, as twisty and complex as the world is, the plot is surprisingly simple. I kept waiting for the major epiphanies that I was sure were coming. the characters and the world were so unique, so surely the story would go spinning off somewhere interesting! …Well, I won’t say it was dull. Far from that. Everyone was fighting everyone else all the time in really spiffy ways and the stakes were high. The titular throne was in peril from several directions and the main party of characters had to concern themselves with the awakening of unspeakable and ancient evils, while alongside them the idealistic underworld lord with a heart of gold threatened civil war and the aristocrats… aristocrated. I can’t say anything in the plotline is all that special, really, as much fun as it was. Even the characters’ conflict all came from either within themselves or from outside the main group. There was some lawful good on chaotic good bickering and a lot of moral conundrums, but everyone is pretty much who they appear to be.*

The characters make up a wonderful, prickly cast. I won’t go so far as to call them affectionate grotesques, that oh-so-useful term I kind of invented myself, but while they’re all fundamentally good, they go about it in some very odd ways. There’s Doctor Adoullah, cranky, crude, and the last defense of the world against supernatural evil. There’s his assistant Raseed, a teenage sword prodigy with a stick up his ass. Their dear friends Litaz and Dawoud, a husband and wife team from far off lands and an alchemist and mage respectively, get shafted on both the cover and the book jacket blurb. I suspect mainly due to space constraints. Anyway, the persnickety old married couple with world-shaking magic add a pleasant vibe to the book. I particularly enjoy books with middle aged and old characters, especially ones that aren’t pure stock character. It’s nice to get some perspective from people who might not be hot enough to want to empathize with. Zamia is a very good try at writing a tough teenage girl. She usually works, she has a motivation for her growly personality, and she softens under some circumstances to a more palatable sort. She also turns into a lion, which helps. Sure, her weakness is a hot guy, but she actually appreciates him for being hot in a way that acknowledges the female gaze and respects him for his skills rather than just butting heads with him and then inexplicably falling for him, which is a nice change of pace. I’m not gonna complain too much.

The roleplayer in me likes to see such a balanced party. Healer, couple specialized spellcasters, dps, and… and a fucking lion. Every party needs a lion. The team aspect of the book plays a lot, and everybody has a role to play under pretty much all circumstances. The world does seem a bit like a really good game setting with good NPCs and an excellently executed plot. The book frequently pauses for local color, and while it doesn’t enhance the story much, it makes you feel part of the world. The sights and smells of the various quarters of Dhamsawaat, the coolest city ever if you don’t mind the crime, monsters, and lack of justice. The various magic traditions mostly follow from the strangely universal religion, but like a lot of fantasy, the deity actually does stuff, so belief is pretty clearly justified. My favorite bit of worldbuilding was the fractured state of this belief system, the way various factions of devotees and even heretics went about interpreting this not-quite-omnipotent God. Two of the main characters are holy men and Zamia’s lion-shifting is apparently a god-given thing and the baddies work for the fallen angel, so he had fun with it and all the viewpoints keep the religious thing from getting tedious.

You get all viewpoints all the time. It’s one of those books that jumps from character to character in a sort of roving third-person-limited, at one point reiterating dialogue twice on one page so as to get two people’s reactions thoroughly. Each character has a very distinct voice and a different way of viewing things, so while there’s no swoon-inducing prose poetry or deeply clever wordplay, it all stays interesting enough to engage, even when there are two pages on the subject of tea. Raseed is my favorite viewpoint character, since I like internally-conflicted hardasses, apparently, almost as much as I like making fun of teenagers. I perhaps over-empathize with the cranky-ass doctor.

So the book is well written with good characters. The world is rich and interesting. The plot is fun, if not too special, and I’m looking forward to the next book. Yes, we got another series! That I jumped into right after the first book came out! I hate waiting.

And I have something to add, because I love tangents more than any other trigonometrical subject. This book is billed in conjunction with the Arabian Knights in its typically breathless and over-written blurb. I even thought about making the comparison myself, and then I noticed there was no reason to do so. I’ve found the reference in several other reviews and mentions, too. And I guess I can see how it’s a useful shorthand, meaning “this story uses Middle Eastern rather than Western European folkloric roots.” But no one feels the need to introduce Tolkien with “well, this is sure Icelandic!” The fact seems to be that drawing from a not-entirely-Western tradition is so staggering that we have to fall back on the most basic, stereotypical reference we can find, dripping with Disneyfication and what’s left of colonial exoticism. For the record, Throne of the Crescent Moon has nothing in common with the Arabian Nights cycle that Earthsea doesn’t have in common with The Brothers Grimm. I’m equally excited to have a story that builds its mythos on a different foundation and annoyed that this is, in itself, a big fucking deal.

And I don’t really know which impulse is better. But I definitely think you should read this book, and the other ones when they come out.

*Disclaimer: Who they appear to be according to my genre savvy. Perhaps another reader will be shocked!

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