For the first review in my series of reviews of Hugo nominees, I’m reading Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed. It’s a good starting point for a few reasons. This is Ahmed’s first novel, so I’m approaching his work totally fresh, which seems good for the beginning of a blog. Also, it was the first file in the Hugo voters’ packet, and I believe in starting at the beginning, so here I go. If you haven’t read it, no fear: the review is spoiler-free.
Some basic information: Throne of the Crescent Moon is the first in a series called The Crescent Moon Kingdoms. It tells the story of Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last remaining member of the once-great order of ghul hunters, and his attempts to fight off an undead threat greater than any he has ever seen before. The narration switches off between Adoulla’s point of view and those of the other four major characters: his assistant, the dervish Raseed; Zamia, a young Badawi tribeswoman; and Litaz and Dawoud, wife and husband, old friends of Adoulla’s. This story focuses primarily on Adoulla’s character arc, but it’s also very much an ensemble cast, probably with an eye to focusing on different characters in upcoming sequels. As you may already have guessed, the setting is clearly inspired by the medieval Muslim world, and that’s probably this novel’s most notable feature.
I really like the idea of a fantasy based on a civilization that doesn’t normally get drawn on for fiction very much. Throne of the Crescent Moon is set in the medieval Muslim world in much the same way that lots of sword-and-sorcery novels are set in medieval Europe. Everything has a different name, and plenty of aspects of the setting aren’t simply drawn from history, but you can definitely trace a lot of the locations and cultural ideas to real-life precedents. For example, the Badawi, nomads who live in the desert near the city where the story is set, seem likely to have been inspired by Bedouin tribes. This is, in my opinion, exactly the kind of thing speculative fiction needs to be doing. It’s a pretty big world out there, full of a lot of really fascinating history and culture, and a lot of fiction is just reusing the same Western European stuff over and over again. Writing about Muslim culture, in particular, is a great way to find inspiration that everyone else isn’t using, and has the potential to do vital work in dismantling the Islamophobia that unfortunately persists in American discourse. Every character in Throne of the Crescent Moon is a member of the same faith, one which is never described as “Islam” but clearly draws heavily on it, and the book does a pretty great job of not just showing how that faith pervades the characters’ lives, but also how it means different things to each of them.
Despite the freshness of its setting, however, Throne of the Crescent Moon doesn’t reach impressive heights of originality in plot or characterization. The fundamental plot conflict is extremely simple and familiar: there are some scary undead monsters, called “ghuls”, threatening people in the city of Dhamsawaat, and a ragtag team of unlikely heroes gets together in order to fight this menace. The bad guys are really really bad – their magic involves horrible murder and torture! (Not a spoiler, as the book opens with a scene of some nasty dudes torturing someone and doing magic.) Each character has a clearly outlined personal conflict to struggle with, some of which are incredibly uninspiring. Raseed’s, for example, is “should I let my emotions come before my devotion to duty?” Well, yes. You should, at least once in a while. We have all read that plot a thousand times, and also, every other character tells you to go for it.
Admittedly, other characters’ internal lives are a little more interesting, and there are also moral questions that aren’t that simple. But even when there are open moral questions, the book telegraphs them extremely clearly, usually by having one viewpoint character point out one side and another viewpoint character point out the other. In fact, there’s quite a bit of telling, rather than showing. For example, on page 230: “Adoulla frowned, sensing the subtle edge beneath the alkhemist’s words. ‘Please, my dear, none of your snobbish scorn for the whoremistress, eh?’” In that fairly typical example of this novel’s prose, I count three different ways the readers are told essentially the same thing.
I don’t want to give you the impression there’s nothing to admire about Throne of the Crescent Moon. I did find myself excited to read it and learn about the events of the plot, even though I sometimes found that plot predictable. And even though I think much more could have been done in the way of using the unusual setting to provide plots and characters unlike those we’re familiar with, the setting itself is beautifully drawn. I got a powerful sense of Dhamsawaat as a living city, and not a city just like every other fantasy city I’ve ever visited. Its almost unbelievably crowded streets and its wildly different neighborhoods nestled cheek-by-jowl gave me the sense of exploring a place I’d never been before, a place I would definitely be interested in visiting again. I’d like to see characters and plots in that city that could only have taken place there, not in any fantasy novel where a group of friends takes down an evil threat.