Every so often I read reviews that talk about a book or an author being “a breath of fresh air” to a genre or market, and I scoff and wonder what that means. Now I know, because that’s how I would describe Throne of the Crescent Moon. After so many fantasy novels based on a pseudo-medieval European setting, it’s just refreshing to see someone use a pseudo-Islamic setting. Moreover, Saladin Ahmed tells the story in a way that makes it feel like urban fantasy—just not urban fantasy set in the present day. The city of Dhamsawaat is in trouble indeed.
Throne of the Crescent Moon follows Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, an aged ghul-hunter, and his apprentice, the dervish Raseed. The halcyon days of ghul-hunting have long since passed, and Adoulla is one of the last of his order. He’s feeling his age, and his gruff and irreverent character is one of the best things about this book. It’s even better when juxtaposed with the serious seventeen-year-old Raseed, who is obsessed with honour, duty, and not being tempted by attractive young women. When the only survivor of a decimated Badawi tribe joins them, and she happens to be a young woman who can shapeshift into a lion and has a ferocious personality to match, Raseed runs into some difficulties in that last department.
Even the minor characters are far from stock. Ahmed hints at a backstory to each one, previous dealings with Adoulla or Adoulla’s friends that have left them in his debt. It gives the impression that even if Ahmed isn’t telling us everything (why would he?) he has a lot of it figured out—exactly the sort of impression an author should give.
Similarly, Ahmed avoids unnecessary exposition when it comes to describing his world or the history of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms. I suspect that some readers will find this unsatisfying and declaim a lack of worldbuilding. Yet what Ahmed chooses to reveal indicates his world is there and consistent—he just isn’t interested in showing it off at the expense of the story. Which is as it should be. It’s frustrating, sometimes, to hear Adoulla talk about something only in passing when it would clearly make for an interesting diversion—but the result is a book that is briskly paced and never dull.
This is fortunate. Though the plot has admirable layers of complexity, it is ultimately not very complicated, and I’m glad Ahmed did not try to build it up more slowly. Throne of the Crescent Moon has many qualities, but subtlety is not one of them. Instead of showing us the sexual tension between Raseed and Zamia, Ahmed tells us all about it almost from the first time they meet. Instead of gradually hinting and foreshadowing at the nature of the Falcon Prince’s involvement, he keeps us in the dark and then reveals everything just prior to the climax. Though there is nothing wrong with these decisions per se, they make the story feel more linear and much more predictable.
I also wish Throne of the Crescent Moon had a strong, compelling antagonist. As it is, the villain is literally without voice. Instead, its mouthpiece is its minion, Mouw Awa, who is quite insane. And when the climax comes and the good guys square off against Mouw Awa’s master for the fate of Dhamsawaat and maybe the world … well, without going into detail, it was disappointing. It was over too soon, and it was a little too easy. Despite all the groundwork Ahmed lays for Adoulla’s internal conflict about his age and Raseed’s insecurities about his dutifulness and righteousness, it never really comes together. This is all the more unfortunate because I was really enjoying the book up until the ending—which didn’t let me down so much as just not live up to the expectations the rest of the book had established.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is rich in refreshing imagery, magic use, and cool characters. It’s very original, in the sense that Ahmed is working outside the typical scope of mainstream fantasy settings, and he does it well. The ending needs work, and the characterization could have been a lot more subtle. But I’d still recommend it, because it has that refreshing voice reviewers are always prattling on about. I should know. Apparently I’m one of them now.