Throne of the Crescent Moon

by Saladin Ahmed

Cover image

Series: Crescent Moon Kingdoms #1
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: January 2013
ISBN: 0-7564-0778-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 367

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Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is the last ghul hunter in Dhamsawaat. He's an old man, and tired, and increasingly uncertain whether he wants to continue putting his life in danger to fight one more fight. But there are no replacements; his young and idealistic dervish apprentice, despite obvious skill, is too inexperienced and uninterested in the knowledge and investigation that makes Adoulla so good at what he does. So, when a young boy shows up on his doorstep, a survivor of a vicious ghul attack, he goes hunting once again. And both finds something much darker and stronger than he expected and meets an unexpected ally: a shape-shifting girl who is herself a survivor of something far worse than ghuls.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is a first-novel fantasy that has made quite a splash, including a Hugo nomination (although I thought a win was unlikely, and I was right). One of the more interesting comments I've read about it was the observation by Jo Walton that if it had come out in 1980, it would have been an amazing, unusually wonderful, non-normative book. That it isn't is evidence of the changes in fantasy since then. The field has grown.

As you might guess from the publisher's insistence on comparing it with The Arabian Nights, and from the names mentioned above, this book is set in an unspecified Middle Eastern culture and draws heavily from its mythology. It does not contain any western characters; the entire story is native to its region. The same is true of the mythology, which gave it a refreshing originality for me. And while I'm not the best one to judge, the presentation of that setting seemed free of the tint of the exotic. People live here, there are factions and multiple cultures, and the supernatural is a backdrop to most of the city.

This would be very unusual decades ago. It's a bit less unusual now, and the story itself is a familiar ensemble fantasy, if refreshingly free of extended map exploration journeys. Ahmed brings together five characters with very different backgrounds and throws their varying talents at a problem. A few of those elements are a bit too familiar: female sexuality as a threat to male power is a world-building element that I could do without, for example. I also found the villain completely inadequate in its unidimensional evil (reinforced with a few more torture scenes than I needed to read), and even the attempted complication felt too predictable to me.

Except for one touch of perspective, I'd call Throne of the Crescent Moon a competent, enjoyable, but somewhat forgettable fantasy novel, albeit one that's refreshingly concerned with a city instead of countrysides and travel. That touch is in the age of several of the protagonists. We get sections following several of the main characters in tight third person, but Adoulla is the first protagonist and the focus of much of the book. And Adoulla is neither young nor inexperienced, and is not going through the typical fantasy bildungsroman. He's old, experienced, a bit set in his ways, cranky, cantankerous, and deeply in love with his city. In tone, this shifts the story towards Star Wars as seen through the eyes of Obi-Wan Kenobi instead of Luke Skywalker. And that change I really liked, and would be happy to see become more common in fantasy.

There was a bit of a downside for me in three of the five main characters being older. At times, Throne of the Crescent Moon has an elegiac tone, a feeling of life, power, and time slipping away and cultures and ways of life being lost. That's not my favorite thematic element. I tend to find it more depressing than I really want in my reading. But, here, the mature perspective more than makes up for some occasional negativity. I particularly liked how the older characters treated the likely budding young romance, which would have been the center of many books in this genre, with bemused detachment and playful encouragement without giving it more significance than it deserves. There's another romance that ends up being more significant, and which needs the weight of time and well-lived lives to become so.

I don't think this book deserves a Hugo, but it is an enjoyable fantasy with some interesting characters and a refreshing perspective and setting. The villain really isn't adequate to the story, there's a bit too much torture for my liking, and I could have done without a few of the tropes, but it's a solid entry in its genre and a pleasant few hours of reading. And despite being advertised as the first of a series, it comes to a satisfying conclusion.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-09-21

Last modified and spun 2014-01-06