Here’s a book recommended to me by Keri, a longtime fellow book buyer who also recommended to me three of my favorite modern day fantasy books that I just read this past week. I honestly didn’t know what to expect from Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.
As someone whose main interest is medievalism and fantasy I’m so used to that being the background for worldbuilding in epic fantasy books. So when I read this I was surprised to find it based on Arab and Middle Eastern culture which now seems so obvious as a rich source for worldbuilding that I am surprised it isn’t done more. Maybe it has and I’ve just not yet discovered those books.
The worldbuilding is where this book shines. The magic system is diverse, from the brief glimpse we get of it requires both vocal and written incantations. The types of monsters called ghuls which are raised from different elements including sand, water and skin ghuls. What stands out the most is the main city of Dhamsawaat brought to life by block names, class of people, merchants, factions and of course the royal palace of the Khalif which contains the titled Throne of the Crescent Moon.
The main characters, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, Raseed bas Raseed, Zamia, Dawoud and Litaz all get points of views which really brings them to life as we get the inner workings of their struggle switching without delaying the action. Each one has both an inner and outer struggle you get to know and understand while also developing the relationships between the characters by letting us know what they think of one another. I think of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire with each point-of-view chapter having a cap off at the end of each chapter. What Ahmed does is switches point of view from one chapter to the next in the middle of action. Just as an example Adoulla could be fighting a ghul with Raseed and be cornered and outnumbered then immediately the next chapter we get Raseed’s point of view as he tries to save his mentor.
The themes that come out in the book that I thoroughly enjoyed because of the switching point of views is the dynamics of age and youth, piety and apathy, experience and naievity. Adoulla, Dawoud and Litaz are much older having had their adventures together for many years. Their reaction to society is less rigid, more open minded as they’ve seen much of the world. Adoulla is very much a cynical old man wishing to retire viewing the established ruling power as incompetent if not corrupt. Zamia and Raseed both have a very rigid view of the world with very little experience of other cultures and ideas. Raseed because of the religious order and Zamia because of her tribe follow a strict set of rules that has been taught to them without questioning if those rules may be wrong or right in a given situation.
Where the novel is weak is in it’s plot development. The middle section after the setup of the conflict takes so long to gather the allies, uncover the secrets of their enemy and develop the plan only for the climax to be over in a blink of an eye. It never gets slow, only because by the time you’ve read the middle section you’re enthralled by the characters. You want to know more about them even when the plot isn’t advancing. The other weak part is the villain himself who we learn almost nothing about except for his name. Then when we finally meet him he barely speaks and is defeated in the blink of an eye after one of the characters finds his inner strength to overcome his self-doubt caused by the villain’s magic. His second in command does all the dirty work and gets the most development through exposition.
Does that seem harsh? I’m not sure but I would still recommend this book despite the little bit of shortcomings. I’m looking forward to the second novel The Thousand and One and how he’ll bring his main cast of characters back together.