Monday, July 15, 2013

New Voices: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Published : DAW Books, 2012
Awards Nominated : Nebula and Hugo awards
Awards Won : Locus Award for Best First Novel

Saladin Ahmed is a poet, as well as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, and he maintains a website.  While he has a quantity of public short fiction and poetry, Throne of the Crescent Moon is his first novel. Out of his short fiction, he was twice nominated for the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer for "Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela”, which was also nominated for a Nebula Award (and is available online).

Ahmed’s first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is a sword and sorcery tale set in an Arabic world, featuring a power struggle around the aforementioned throne.  While magic is pretty common in the capital city of Dhamsawaat, the townsfolk are more concerned with the corrupt Khalif and rebellious Falcon Prince than any possible threat from ghuls or djenn.  As a result, professional ghul hunting has become a largely thankless task, though the elderly, messy, curmudgeonly hunter Adoulla Makhslood still risks life and limb to protect people from the occasional ghul.

Adoulla travels with his dervish companion, the young Raseed bas Raseed, who zealously adheres to a strict code of piety.  Chasing after a particularly dangerous set of ghuls leads them to take in a vengeance-obsessed young tribeswoman, Zamia, who can transform into a lion.  As ghul-hunt takes a more complicated turn, Adoulla and his friends must turn to allies old and new. They find themselves becoming entangled in multiple plots, mystical and political, as they uncover secrets that could have disastrous consequences for the entire world.

While Throne of the Crescent Moon has a fairly interesting Arabic setting, it feels like a conventional adventure story that could have come straight from an especially fun table-top role-playing game.  I think the novel might most be appreciated by fans of novels in the style of Weis & Hickman, provided that they are interested in adventures set in a very different campaign setting.  The character classes are different than the standard wizards, clerics and fighters, but they mostly serve the same purposes.  The action-focused combat scenes, as well as the descriptions of weapons and class abilities, also seemed particularly reminiscent of these kinds of games and novels.

The general structure of the story mostly followed these role-playing conventions as well, progressing from party formation and dynamics to the final boss fight, and it included many familiar narrative tricks along the way.  While there’s some attempt at a little bit of moral ambiguity (e.g. the Falcon Prince’s Robin Hood style morality), the main conflict is basically black-and-white/good-vs.-evil.  The novel also feels very self-contained, though it is planned as the first part of a trilogy.  I’m guessing the following novels will follow the main characters through more adventures and personal difficulties.

The characters were mostly likable, but were a little too flatly portrayed for my taste.  The dialogue and narrative often seemed awkwardly explicit, as if every person’s thoughts and feelings needed to be spelled out completely. This made many of the character’s personalities seem simplistic and exaggerated.  I think this was particularly grating on Raseed and Zamia, who caught a bad case of instant-love.  Their romance was clearly telegraphed in advance, and it never really seemed emotionally convincing to me.

Despite my several complaints, I did find the story entertaining.  I don’t think the story really broke much new ground, but it did do what it set out to do—tell a conventional fantasy adventure tale in an interesting, Arabic-influenced setting.  I think anyone looking for that kind of reading experience will likely not be disappointed.

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