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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Problematic

I think I need to place a moratorium on myself when it comes to using the word “problematic.” It’s so damn useful, but really, it’s gotta stop.* I can get by without this linguistic crutch! It’s simply a tic. Now, the Ginger Waif will go and do something soothing. Let’s see. Given the recent loss of the groundbreaking author and my mood to enjoy some dragons, I think I’ll delve into Pern. Relive high school a little. Carry on a tradition, too, since I inherited all the older books from my dad’s extensive sci-fi collection.

Dragons, flying on dragons, time travel, hey, a bard. And… and sexuality is a smell and rape is love and no woman who isn’t demure and childish/sexy (…what?) ever makes good and… Now, now, Ginger Waif, it was a different time. Why, considering the 60’s, she was perfectly progressive! By certain lax standards, anyway. She did improve later in life, and there are fun stories buried in the… Endless waves of impossibly messed-up gender-based tripe. I love my old-school pulp, but it’s so–

Maybe try another comfort read. Let’s go for some early Tanya Huff! An author who was ahead of her time; so much so that you don’t actually need to qualify her early books with the dates! And sure there’s a little squick, but I’ve already been over that in previous reviews and I think it probably does come down to character perspective, in the end. So I’ll just enjoy some nice, familiar Vicky Nelson. And wondering how on earth a writer ever came to be so hostile to journalism. Does the media ever do anything other than harass victims, cause panics, and interfere in active investigations? Sure, the popular media can be kind of awful about airing whatever’s most sensational, but is there a sympathetic journalist anywhere in this universe? And on a similar note, do all the police officers and military personnel need to be deified? In all the thousands of pages given over to the Canadian constabulary and the space marines, I think there are, what, two bad cops? And they… actually, completely fail to get their comeuppance. They just disappear. Did the system work? Or are they still out there somewhere in imaginary-90’s Toronto, planting evidence and brutalizing suspects? Is this actually an incredibly subtle commentary? Am I being hypercritical and assuming that just because a wrong isn’t addressed specifically, it’s tacitly approved? Maybe. Probably. But still, I find the slight authoritarian bent a little– Damn.

Do you really need to spend all that time on the rape, George R. R. Martin? Lesbianism doesn’t work that way, Christopher Moore. Dear entire genres of horror and comedy, agh! Terry Goodkind, I hate you and everything you love.

…No. I’m not giving up my word. There’ll never be anything worth reading that won’t contain some premise or idea that I can quibble with on some level. There’ll never be an author I agree with wholly. Hell, I can reread my own stuff going back a year or two and wonder what I was thinking. Some stories are too laden down with execrable ideas to enjoy, but even the best stories have their baggage, their questionable aspects, their betrayals of an author’s foibles. I’m sure my writing contains its own challenges and mistakes. And hell, while I consider my idea of right to be pretty well-considered, there are certainly other opinions out there. I never want to be blinded to new or even disturbing ideas in my fiction, and I seldom want to tar a whole story with the brush of WRONG. (Unless it’s that thing where Orson Scott Card made Hamlet’s dad a child predator because gay is caused by Satan. Fuck that book and fuck Card for writing it. And Ender’s Game isn’t even that good. Yeah, I said it.) I can’t think of a better word to address concerns appropriately without bogging down reflections of the literary merits. Problematic. It’s here to stay.

*Except when my food is problematic. That is an opinion I will always and forever voice. Or until someone figures out how to eat a gyro without a chest-high table, rolled-up sleeves, and a lot of luck.

Review: Knight and Rogue Series, Hilari Bell

Isn’t it nice when you discover a new subgenre? A kind of story, a shape that recurs and gives you neat new way to relate? Sure, the completely unique is still to be treasured and cultivated, but it’s such a comfort to know there will be more if you look for it. There are the ones that are so common you forget they’re a specific form at all and not just the way stories are, like, say, “young individual (usually male) discovers themselves to be super special all along and goes off with their wise mentor to save the kingdom/planet/dimension/whathaveyou.” There are more particular forms, of course, like “girl goes off to court and is subjected to intrigue and almost always swordplay” or “some kid learns how to be a sneaky rogue from a slightly older and extremely handsome sneaky rogue.” It’s good to meet old friends in new clothes, or maybe it’s familiar old clothes on new friends. Either way, I love finding new ones. And I have recently discovered that “a naive and distinctly virtuous young man and his disreputable friend wander around having adventures” is a subgenre in itself. I first encountered this tale under the auspices of Mickey Zucker Reichert’s Nightfall duology, which like most of her work is amusing and kind of cute but not particularly rereadable. I much prefer the Knight and Rogue series. It’s my new best friend.

I’m not the only one who makes friends with books, right?

Anyway, there are three books so far in the Knight and Rogue series; The Last Knight, Rogue’s Home, and Player’s Ruse. They follow the adventures of Michael and his squire, Fisk, who live in and kingdom whose technology and social mores are roughly those of Early Modern Europe, though it’s a little squidgy. (I apparently didn’t make up that word. I love English.) You might infer that that makes being a knight errant kinda weird. So does everyone else. Yes, there’s an affectionate Don Quixote thing going on, if the Don were self aware and Sancho Panza better educated and grumpier. There’s also an interesting system of magic, which is identified as “magica” for… some reason. I often have mixed feelings about this sort of linguistic twist. On the one hand, it does sound more momentous and mysterious and more like a proper name, which jives with the way the metaphysical works in this universe, but on the other, you’re just saying “magic.” Go ahead. There’s a perfectly good word already. You run into this one a lot. Random spellings and added syllables on magic are outstripped in fantasy only by random spellings and added syllables on titles of nobility.

But I digress. Magic is an inborn property in this world, found in essentially random individuals in the animal and plant kingsdoms. Being a biologist I wanted to know if there were magic fungi and protists, and I make no apologies. Suffice it to say, the flora and fauna are commonly imbued with power that enhances their natural attributes. Medicinal plants are more effective, poisonous plants are more deadly, and presumably, magica Brussels sprouts are more retch-inducing. Magica rabbits can turn invisible, magica dogs are better at smelling things and learning tricks, magica horses run and jump more effectively. You get the idea. If you’re me you wonder a bit about the specificity of the properties enhanced by being magic, whether there’s a sort of Platonic ideal and why, exactly, the aspects that humans immediately think of are what gets better. There are more important things about being a rabbit than not being seen, if you ask a rabbit, I’m sure.

I digress again. And there’s a reason. Knight and Rogue makes for a wonderful little world and I’m inclined to explore it, and if I’m poking at the boundaries, it’s because I love it and want to understand all the more.

Plants and animals each have a god protecting them, and if you annoy a magic– sorry, a magica critter or herb, you get in trouble. Certain humans who are all secretive and shaman-y can help you fix that by means of sacrifice. Humans, however, don’t get a deity. They’re on their own. This leads to a rather interesting perspective on social contracts and a society in general. It’s a rare success at spinning a religious worldview in fantasy that I think really makes sense and makes the right sort of impact on story and character. Religion in spec fic can get so bloody contrived and it’s awfully problematic in terms of story, and I really like this handling of the subject.

I’ve talked too much about the magic, so with one quick explanation I’ll move on, though I love it so. Some humans have little twitches of Gifts, most notably the ability to sense magica, but also including a knack for handling animals or predicting the weather or knowing when they’re in danger. The story insists that these aren’t magic proper, just, um, exactly like magic in all respects. I’m not so sure about this aspect. Also, Gifts can only be passed down the female line and it comes and goes, so I guess it’s an X-chromosome recessive thing?

Alright, I’m really done about the world and its mechanics now. I’d like to run a game in the universe and see what I can make of it, so I’ll vent my nitpicking there instead. On to the characters. Michael and Fisk are some of the very bestest heroes of all time. Michael is a twist on a twist on the white knight. He’s not particularly effective, generally stumbling and lucking and leaning on Fisk all along the way to the ultimate mostly victory that sometimes comes. He’s completely aware that everyone he meets thinks he kind of sucks or at least is a nutcase, and while he keeps on keepin’ on, he does get discouraged, as anyone would. He is a super woobie, to speak TV Tropes at you.

(I’ll just take a moment to say that if Hilari Bell were of another generation, I suspect these two would be a couple. It’s awfully hard not to slash them with extreme prejudice. And with all the times Michael is injured and/or emotionally wounded and Fisk has to pick up the pieces… Well, there’s an app for that, is all I’m saying.)

Fisk is a cynic in theory, but an idealist in practice even before he and Michael are besties for life. As I learned back in a high school lit class sometime or other, you learn about a character first from what they do, then what everyone else says about them, and only lastly from what he says.  Fisk pushes himself as a hardened and irredeemable bastard, to which I say, Ha. And then pat him on the head. In my imagination. Fisk acts as a slightly more selfish Robin Hood even when he’s being all criminal, and thereafter he annoys bad guys with Michael and they bicker a lot.   He dwells a lot on injustices done him, and that’s a whole lot of injustices, granted, but aside from making him a tad bit bitter, he seems to have come out of being betrayed and neglected with a slightly bad attitude. He’s about as evil as an iguana in a funny hat.*

So yeah, they’re both fundamentally good hearted and deeply tragic and attractive and they always win at great cost and they’re super special awesome. It’s a YA book and it’s lovely. I can live with that. Being YA books, they have slightly disconcertingly large print and white space, which I know is wholly irrelevant to the content, but which always weirds me out a bit. The stories are at a good level for early teens, rating-wise, most of the gore described more in terms of emotional impact and sex mostly absent from the main characters’ consciousness. The story switches between Fisk and Michael’s first-person narratives, usually going along chronologically but occasionally skipping forward or back when the story calls for it. No stylistic leaps, but it’s very effective and these are two heads I like spending time in while they solve mysteries.

That’s most of what they do, solving mysteries. There are certainly episodes of swashbuckling and making acrobatic escapes, but the target is generally to determine who’s the the root of whatever evil’s afoot. The stories don’t really work as whodunits, in that the clues are either deeply obscure or super obvious, so you can generally guess who’s at the root of the wickedness but not why or how, just because they’re presented and dwelt upon. Though Bell does love red herrings. Fisk and Michael spend half the books eliminating suspects with actual detective work and the reader goes along eliminating based on whether there seems to be a reason for a character’s continued presence. If you were to chart the story, the books would seem a bit formulaic. Michael and Fisk go to a place. Someone they like describes something that is not as it ought to be. They investigate using their various strengths and eventually stumble to a conclusion, and there’s a battle of wits, wills, and weight, and then they wander into the sunset, presumably to return next books for brand new tales of daring-do.

But it’s the journey, not the destination, and there’s always enough new and strange material to keep you busy. Bell isn’t addicted to tying up every loose end in the world and the endings are never unreservedly happy. In fact, they’re usually more bitter than sweet. And sometimes some element of the climax does come barreling out of an alleyway yelling for your attention, having arrived a bit late. It’s a small flaw, though, and even the Attack of the Sudden Plot Element is fun and wacky and adventurous.

Knight and Rogue is the kind of series that could go on forever, assuming the heroes never actually find a way to solve their problems and settle down happily. The books are episodes of wild activity as the heroes wander from place to place with their ever-expanding and very silly menagerie (currently a drunk horse, a loud, gimpy horse, and a mute dog, playing lovable misfit counterparts to their lovable misfit owners). For reasons I won’t explain for fear of spoilers, but which result in this pattern of Adventure>Go to New Place>Adventure, settling down isn’t bloody likely, and I hope to dip into the incompetent bumbling and thrilling escapades of Michael and Fisk** for many years to come.

This Ginger Waif review was brought to you by the letter F, the number 16.7, and the Society for the Promotion of “They” as a Third-Person-Singular Gender Neutral Pronoun in the English Language.

*Funny hats in reptiles are known to decrease evil by at least two degrees of magnitude.

**It has come to the reviewer’s attention that Fisk’s first name is Nonopherian.

Urban Fantasy and Plotting

As I observed in the Smoke review, urban fantasy is kind of a heavily tread path. It’s hard to do anything new with it, since it’s pretty much “some magical thing interacts with the real world, shenanigans ensue,” and print. I’m very aware of this, having run an urban fantasy and fairies game for years. I can come up with  a half dozen plots for such a setting in a few minutes. In fact… I’m timing myself.

The city’s homeless population begins to disappear. Young vampires are flocking to follow a strange figure who claims to have the secret for circumventing the weaknesses that come with their form of immortality. You spot out of the corner of your eye a figure that seems to be yourself or your friend, but in a place or a time that doesn’t make any sense. Widespread mechanical failures throughout the city correspond with unexplained citings of shadowy beings.

Two minutes. Slowed down by my being an absurd person who was correcting typos despite the clock running.

And yet it’s awesome. We keep coming back to it. Some of that is certainly wish fulfillment, to be found particularly in the vampire and author insert have sexy adventures subgenre, of course. But wouldn’t it be cool if tomorrow you witnessed something impossible and were swept into the world of ghouls and marauding werewolves and ghostly happenings? Of course it would. Don’t lie. Sure, we’re all picturing ourselves as the heroes of the story, not the side characters who get bumped off or injured, certainly not the random mooks who learn about vampire fangs via thorough exsanguination. But we’re allowed.

It’s a great genre to relate to. And it’s a hard one to write, I can attest. You have to get things right (though you should do some research if you’re making up your world, too, of course). The author may decide that in this reality, the supernatural things have come out of the closet, or always were, or are sneaky and secret, but there’s always a sense of a parallel world, a secret place you get to get into if you’re cool enough. And it creates a real demand on the characters, too. Most urban fantasy I really like is character driven. There’s drama and adventure, but the people have to be truly awesome, because otherwise they won’t live up to it. It’s easier to say “you’re doing it wrong!” to the snarky beat cop who knows a thing or two about werewolves than to the barbarian riding the dragon.

Though the fact that Twilight is around kind of busts up my theory. Oh, well. Urban fantasy. It’s all been done and will be done again, and I’ll read it every time. Unless it’s boring vampire sex. Blah.

There’s no place like home! Except most of them.

My Oz-related ruminations on the Fairyland review brought an old irritation to mind. Not a pet peeve, perhaps, but perhaps one I’ll go over to feed and play with when its proper owners aren’t home. In short, wanting to go home at the end of the adventure is a lame, lame cliche. Please stop doing it.

I don’t know if The Wonderful Wizard of Oz originated this now-hackneyed idea. TV tropes was unhelpful, and that’s about all the research I’m feeling up to at the moment. Either way, it’s the most famous, and one of the more justified. If you’re not familiar with the real, book-version Oz, Dorothy wants to go home because she has responsibilities. Her impoverished family relies in part on her labor for survival. And it’s also worth noting that Dorothy goes back. A few books later she goes to live in Oz permanently. Oz is way better than Kansas. (Sure, Oz is actually a pretty dark and terrifying place at times, but in addition to wonder and adventure it provides things like reliable sustenance and eternal health. Also your dog can talk. And I accept no allegations of spoilers, by the way. The Emerald City of Oz is past its centennial, and it’s your fault if you don’t know that Toto talks at the end. So there.)

And, as Valente points out so ably in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, children are heartless. Allow me to offer an example. A favorite movie of mine as a very small child was All Dogs Go to Heaven. Laugh if you must. That movie was awesome. My mother, perhaps peeved at having to watch that strange amalgamation of terrifying hellfire, big-lipped alligators, and annoying little girls every time the Li’l Ginger Waif got a shot at the Video Store, asked me a question one day. “What would you rather have, a Mommy and Daddy who love you, or a junkyard dog?” I… I don’t really know what she expected. I’m not sure she’s quite forgiven me to this day. But I think anyone who knows little kids knows what the answer was. They want the adventure. They want the exciting new world.

And I was so annoyed at the kids in lazily-written books and movies who just wanted to go home. I raged. When I got older (usually past the target age for this particular sort of story, though given my tastes I definitely still indulged), I got to the point where I understood the responsibility angle, the part where you missed your family or what have you. But I still hated that tearful goodbye. “Stay! You found someplace better! Stay! You don’t appreciate what you’ve got! Stay! Or come home and I’ll go!”

It’s possible I was just jealous. But the fact remains. And that’s one thing I really loved about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. (I will use any excuse for that title, won’t I?) Another great example is China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun. Forget saying goodbye to the magical land of wonder. It’s not like you’ll really be able to go home anyway. Travel changes you even in the regular old world. Nobody’s coming back from Dimension X or Fantasia and getting right back to homework and chores.