Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Reviewed by Liz Bourke
12 March 2012
The Doctor's smile turned hard. "You think me a lazy old oaf. And when I look at you I see an impertinent savage of a girl. But in the Name of God, our meeting in battle together brings the Heavenly Chapters to my mind: 'O believer! Look to the accident that is no accident!' We were meant by God to fight this bloody cruelty together, Zamia Banu Laith Badawi. And so we shall." (p. 73)
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is sixty years old, fat, and tired. The last ghul hunter in the city of Dhamsawaat, together with his young assistant, the dervish Raseed bas Raseed, he fights evil magic. Adoulla's been doing it his whole life, and he's more than a little weary of his calling and what it's cost him. Now the most powerful evil sorcery he's yet encountered is trying to gain dominion over his home city of Dhamsawaat, aiming at the Khalif's throne. Meanwhile, a madman known as the Falcon Prince is fomenting rebellion in the streets, and the Khalif isn't the kind of ruler Adoulla would exactly be sad to see go.
But Dhamsawaat is the good doctor's home, and—God willing!—he's not about to let an evil sorcerer and a man-jackal made of mist and shadows make its streets run with blood. Joined by Zamia Banu Laith Badawi, a proud and touchy fifteen-year-old nomad warrior who has lost her entire tribe to the same soul-stealing evil that threatens Dhamsawaat, Adoulla, with his ascetic young religious assistant, sets out to do his best. His longtime friends, the alkhemist Litaz and her magus husband Dawoud also come to his aid. This is solid adventure fantasy, sword and sorcery style.
While Dhamsawaat clearly possesses a preponderance of men in positions of authority, Throne presents us with an array of well-rounded female characters with goals and desires of their own. From Zamia, until the death of her tribe its Protector; to Litaz, whose marriage to Dawoud is clearly a partnership of equals; to Miri Almoussa, the brothel-mistress whom Adoulla loves—but who intends to suit herself, not wait for him, and who defends her employees with some principle:
"All people who work deserve days away from their labor, Doullie," she said flatly. "And whores are people, even if my business depends on letting men forget that fact." (p. 163)
Nor does Ahmed overlook the consequences of a medieval world. The Dhamsawaat of Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is a city of the poor and middling, full of noise and scent: the novel lives in the streets, and not the wealthy inner circle of court. Ahmed has a deft touch with his setting, and evokes the smells and tastes of the city, of the pastries and tea the Doctor is forever eating and drinking, with a rare immediacy. Tactile and visual cues come across less strongly, but when Doctor Adoulla drinks tea, I find myself thirsty.
Adoulla leaned his face farther over the small bowl and inhaled deeply, needing its aromatic cure for the fatigue of life. The spicy-sweet cardamom steam enveloped him, moistening his face and beard, and for the first time that groggy morning he felt truly alive. (p. 6)
Doctor Adoulla is a complex man, possessing—in his way—a piety as deep as that of his ascetic dervish companion Raseed. But while Raseed's piety is of the self-deprivation fire-and-brimstone sort, the doctor is altogether more laid back: something of a slob, a man fond of his meals, fonder of his friends, who refuses to use edged weapons and isn't inclined to let rules get in the way. Despite his weariness at being the last ghul-hunter in Dhamsawaat, throughout Throne we find him rising to his duty.
Raseed, too, is an authentic portrayal of a seventeen-year-old celibate warrior monk: pious, naïve, conflicted. Zamia's arrival causes him much inner conflict, since seventeen-year-old celibates aren't supposed to fall in love.
Zamia Banu Laith Badawi is as well-rounded a character as the two main men. Adolescent, proud, combative, it would have been easy for her character to fall into cliché. But instead of being solely driven by the desire for revenge, or falling in love with Raseed at first sight, or one of any number of other ways in which she could have been portrayed as an adjunct to the doctor and his apprentice, she is shown making her own choices. Not all of them are choices made from adolescent pride. Her competence as a fighter, and her powers, come to Adoulla's rescue several times over the course of the narrative. (Although I would like to have seen a fantasy setting in which menstruation had absolutely no effect on one's superpowers.)
All of Ahmed's characters are allowed to be weak, to grieve, and to need rescue, and I found Zamia and Raseed to be very real portrayals of adolescent warriors.
The book does, however, suffer from a couple of first novel problems. Especially in the first few chapters, it's clear that Ahmed is still finding his voice, still feeling his way into the structure of a novel. The pacing and tension remain uneven, and only gradually do isolated incidents begin to acquire coherence in the larger narrative. Though the tension becomes more controlled and focused towards the end, it still has occasional wobbles. With six points of view on display, it doesn't always feel as though Ahmed is in control of his novel's structure. Scenes of tense action are followed by pages of discussion and recovery—especially towards the beginning, where the request to hunt murdering ghuls is followed by a lengthy journey across town, a traffic jam at the city gate, and still more journeying. Switching points of view diminishes the emotional intensity of the story and allows for more meandering journeys, some of them solitary, across and throughout the city of Dhamsawaat. The setting itself is wonderful, but less walking and more talking, fighting, or plotting would have made this a tighter book.
In addition, the Falcon Prince subplot feels compressed and insufficiently integrated with the rest of the novel. This may be in part because my suspension of disbelief for a king of thieves has a much higher threshold than almost anything else in a fantasy novel: magic makes its own rules, but civil unrest follows patterns, and thief-kings don't fit them easily. The said Falcon Prince appears to have implausible resources. He seems to have far too much money for even the most successful of thieves. I hold out hope, considering the conclusion of Throne of the Crescent Moon, that this may be explained in further novels.
But Ahmed is very definitely in control of his setting. It's immensely refreshing to read a novel that doesn't have Classical Antiquity, fake medieval Europe, or an Italianate Renaissance at the heart of its cultural matrix. I've nursed a certain tenderness for the influences of medieval Islam since my first introduction to the poems of Jalal al-Din Rumi and the travelogue of Ibn Battuta, to say nothing of Usamah ibn Munqidh's Book of Learning by Example and the Thousand and One Nights.
Ahmed's Dhamsawaat has the flavor of the Baghdad of Hārūn al-Rashīd, or the Cairo of the Fatimid Caliphate: dusty, thronged, cosmopolitan, vibrant. The references to Beneficent God and the Traitorous Angel, to the Heavenly Chapters and God the All-Merciful show a marked cultural piety underlying the milieu of the doctor and his companions, which makes another refreshing change: this agnostic reviewer is used to reading second-world fantasy where religion either doesn't figure, or is the tool of the (literal or figurative) devil. It's easy to throw stones. It's much less easy to portray varieties of piety.
Hype can do a first novel a disservice. I'd heard a lot about Throne of the Crescent Moon before it came into my hands, and I expected a little more than it succeeded in delivering. But on the whole? This is a solid, engaging debut with distinct adventure sensibilities: an entertaining story, and one which is a pleasure to read. I look forward to seeing what will happen next in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms.
A postscript. Those among us who love our maps will be pleased to note that the map for the Crescent Moon Kingdoms in Throne's hardcover edition is a very elegant one, albeit spare of detail and with no discernible distance scale. Sadly, the dot marking Dhamsawaat and environs is very near the crease of the page, an infelicity of production which one must hope will be amended in subsequent editions.