For a while now, I’ve wondered at the absence of Middle-Eastern and Renaissance settings in fantasy. I’ve read a lot of Medieval analogues, A Song of Ice and Fire being the most popular and most famous right around now. Now, while there is nothing wrong with using the medieval period as a basis for a fantasy world, it has long seemed, to me at least, that that was the only setting being used by writers.
My fascination for the Renaissance and Medieval Middle East is rather difficult to explain, but all I can say is that these periods of history (with the latter influencing the former to a great degree) are especially vibrant and lively, particularly in terms of intellectual and artistic pursuits. While I am well aware of the violence that occurred during these periods (no period in history is absent of violence), it is also true that Italy during the Renaissance and the Middle East during the Medieval period were hotbeds for creativity and innovation. One only needs to look at the advances made in science and mathematics by the Middle Eastern scholars, and the artistic accomplishments of the Italian Renaissance masters, to see that there was something going on during those points in history to create something like Baghdad in the thirteenth century, for instance, or Florence in the fifteenth.
It doesn’t take much for a writer to see the potential in these periods of history as the basis for a fantasy world, but up until recently only a very few have done so. The last book I liked that was set in a world similar to the Medieval Middle East was The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay, and then recently I discovered, and fell in love with, Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series, the first novel of which is set in a city very similar to sixteenth-century Venice. The popularity of The Borgias television series also pretty much guarantees that I will be reading about Italian Renaissance-analogues in the near future. But not since The Lions of Al-Rassan have I read anything based on the Medieval Middle East.
Why this has been the case can be the basis for a lengthy debate, but the primary reason that comes to mind mostly has to do with 9/11 and the general atmosphere of the world in the aftermath of that event. Writing about the Middle East, even to use it as a fantasy setting, seemed dangerous, disrespectful even. This has changed, of course, and it appears that now, more than ever, there are more writers who are using the Middle East as the basis for their fantasy worlds, going hand-in-hand with the rise of e-books and small publishing houses that are more willing to take risks with material that other, larger publishing houses might consider too controversial.
And truly, I’m glad for this shift in the current climate of publishing, because otherwise I might not have gotten the chance to discover and read Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is the first book in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms series, taking place in a city called Dhamsawaat. Adoulla Makhslood, the last remaining ghul hunter in the city, is considering the pros and cons of retirement, despite being the last of his order. He’s had a long, stressful life, and he’s thinking that maybe it’s time for him to finally stop, despite the fact that he hasn’t trained an apprentice to follow in his footsteps and take over where he has left off. When an old flame asks for his help in a case regarding her niece, Adoulla has no choice but to go on another adventure – except this adventure turns out to be far more dangerous than any he’s ever had.
One of the first things I noticed as I made my way through the book was that it felt like an interesting mashup of The Arabian Nights and the television series Supernatural. The comparison to Supernatural isn’t meant to be derogatory; I really like the show, and was rather addicted to it when it first came out. I suppose it’s the demon-hunting aspect of the story, but I can’t help but draw that parallel, especially when it comes to Adoulla and his friends Dawoud and Litaz. As a matter of fact, Adoulla is what I think Dean Winchester would be like if Dean lives to be Adoulla’s age: cantankerous and wanting to stop living the demon-hunting life, but having no other choice.
And now that I mention Dawoud and Litaz, I really like the dynamic between them. In one of her point-of-view chunks, Litaz describes Dawoud as being her opposite in everything, and yet she thanks God that they work very well together despite – or probably because of – those differences. There wasn’t a lot of character development for them, unfortunately, but I’m chalking this up to the fact that this is only the first book in a series, and I’m hoping for more extensive characterization in the next book or books.
Another couple I’d like to see more of are Raseed and Zamia. Their circumstances are most intriguing, Raseed especially. Introduced early in the book as Adoulla’s assistant, his training as a dervish makes for some rather hilarious – and frustrating – moments in the first one-third of the book, especially when it comes to girls. He is, I think, the character with the greatest potential for complex development, especially because his black-and-white view of the world is assaulted and finally broken at the end of the book. Zamia, also, has a rather narrow view of the world, but that view is broken, albeit more gradually than Raseed’s, and she’s more accepting of these significant shifts in her worldview than Raseed. There is great potential for these two characters to become more interesting and complex, and I’m looking forward to the next book to see how this happens.
And then there is the world, which is what drew me to this book in the first place. I’ve long been in love with the fairytale Middle East painted by the Arabian Nights, and that spirit, that sense of place, is what I’ve kept an eye out for in Throne of the Crescent Moon. I’m quite happy to say that I found it. Although practically all the important events of the story take place in the less upscale parts of Dhamsawaat, there are glimpses of what the city is: beautiful and violent, peaceful and noisy, all at the same time. In the glimpses the reader gets through the characters’ narration, there is a sense of a city that breathes and lives, like any great city, to the rhythm of its inhabitants, who shape the city even as they themselves are shaped by it.
Another aspect I found intriguing is the way the characters constantly quote from a book called the Heavenly Chapters. I’m not entirely familiar with the Koran, so I can’t say for certain if the quotes the characters constantly make are actually from the Koran, or are simply made up by the author for the sake of having a Koran-equivalent in the novel. This, however, doesn’t detract in the least from the story, and it’s quite interesting how Raseed and Adoulla throw quotes at each other early on in the novel: a great reminder that how one person interprets a book is always going to be different from another person’s interpretation of the same text – especially if the text in question is supposed to be sacred. I also like how certain aspects of the Heavenly Chapters play into the demon-slaying magic that Adoulla applies in his line of work. The other kinds of magic in the novel – shape-shifting, necromancy, mage-magic, and alkhemy – are not entirely explored, but there is enough there for the reader to get tantalizing glimpses of how they could conceivably operate.
And this is where I get to the primary flaw of this novel: the scope. There is something rather “small” about this story, though there is definitely the potential for something greater. I was looking for something a little grander in scope, a little more epic. I was rather hoping for something that extends far beyond the scope of the plot that was laid out in Throne of the Crescent Moon, for although the threat to Dhamsawaat was quite great, and the aftereffects of those events will likely have rather large repercussions further down the line, I did feel as if the story could just have been larger (for lack of a better word) than what was portrayed in the story. I rather think this is because Ahmed, who is a veteran of the short story form, is just trying out his hand with the longer novel form in Throne of the Crescent Moon, because I got the feeling that the entirety of the novel could have been told a bit more tightly in novella, as opposed to full-blown novel, length. But this is a small flaw, and something which I hope will see improvement in the upcoming books.
All told, Throne of the Crescent Moon is a promising novel on its own, and a promising opening to what looks to be an interesting series. If the scope seems a little narrow, I attribute that issue to the fact that this is Ahmed’s first novel. It’s a minor flaw, anyway, and will likely be corrected in the upcoming second book. Either way, this is a great novel for someone looking for something a little different in their fantasy, and willing to overlook a few minor flaws in favor of exploring a a very intriguing new world with a bunch of interesting characters with great potential in the future.