Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Fantastic Firsts: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

I love discovering new authors and finding new worlds to explore. This year has been a good year for discovery with stand out debuts from Myke Cole, Erin Morgenstern, and Douglas Hulick to name a few. I've decided to do a series of posts on debut authors in addition to the regular reviews and other features on the blog. Deciding who to start with was quite the challenge but I decided to start with an author that may not have gotten as wide reaching attention as some of the others, due to the fact that his novel doesn't have the immediate appeal that some of the others may enjoy. Saladin Ahmed's novel The Throne of the Crescent Moon falls into a category I hadn't heard of until recently. Silk road fantasy is a departure from the usual faux-European settings of the majority of the books on the fantasy shelves. Ahmed's heritage gives him a fantastic springboard from which to launch into this exciting and engaging novel.

Sorry for the small size but enlarging blurs the image.

Throne of the Crescent Moon tells the story of aging ghul hunter Dr. Adoulla Makhslood and his protegee the young holy warrior Raseed bad Raseed as they investigate a series of brutal murders in the sprawling city of Dhamsawaat. Dhamsawaat is a city on the verge of open revolt as the charismatic Falcon Prince stirs up dissent against the unpopular and cruel Khalif and the tensions between these two factions is underscored in the world view of the story's twin protagonists.

In many ways it is the contrast between Adoulla and Raseed that makes Throne of the Crescent Moon such a pleasure to read. While both men are heroes fighting to protect the people of Dhamsawaat from the forces of Traitorous Angel, Adoulla with his knowledge of magic and Raseed with the steel and martial prowess gained from his time with a militant religious order they two men couldn't be more different in their world view and personality. Ahmed deftly juxtaposes the readers expectations by making the older ghul hunter more brash, cynical and quick tempered in contrast to the milder mannered, idealistic Raseed. This is a welcome change of pace that frames the heart of the book.

This is a story of idealism versus cynicism, the weariness of age versus the exuberance of youth, extremism versus tolerance. The dialogue between the Doctor and his protege are richly steeped in these themes and lends both personality and context to the actions taken by both. Ahmed manages to weave these thematic elements into the narrative smoothly making sure that they always serve the story first and foremost.

There are many other characters that play important roles as well. All are equally well conceived and serve as far more than window dressing or extra hands on deck for action sequences or sources of information necessary for advancing the plot. Some would likely say that they are protagonists on par with Adoulla and Raseed, and in at least one case they are probably correct. I'm sure the shape shifting tribeswoman Zamia will appear in later books in an even more prominent role. The important thing is that Ahmed manages to make even tertiary characters matter. Case in point, when a minor character dies late in the story I was genuinely sad. Not because that character was important to the story or to me as a reader, but because I understood through just a few brief interactions with one of our heroes the whys and hows of his importance to that hero.

Many fantasy readers will tell you that the most important character in any other world fantasy is the setting itself. The Throne of the Crescent Moon shines here as well. Ahmed's Dhamsawaat and its surrounding environs are described in lush detail. This is not a typical fantasy story dressing in flowing silks and replacing its longsword with a scimitar. The descriptions of foods, furnishings, architecture, and even the particulars of dialect feel authentic and after just a few chapters even the most myopic reader of Euro-fantasy will feel right at home. Compared to other fantasy novels steeped in unfamiliar real world cultures that I've read in the past, Ahmed makes it look easy.

The action sequences were well scripted with some high tension moments complete with excellent use of psychology that made even these scenes reflect the character of the participants. The magic system used was flavorful if not intricately explained. There is a real feeling of sword and sorcery novels, where magic systems and world building fade into the background and it is all about the characters and their journey. I'm certain all of those details are there, but they stay respectfully behind the curtain so as not to distract us. Ahmed's light touch makes it easy to forget you are reading at all.

The pacing is brisk, except for a slow section in the middle while injuries are allowed to heal and information is gathered, but it gave me room to breathe for a minute. The book is short, but the story is complete, engaging, and most of all fun. I eagerly await more tales from Dhamsawaat.

1 comment:

  1. I adored Throne of the Crescent Moon! I found it to be entertaining, immersive, satisfying, and incredibly polished for a debut novel.