Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed is one of those odd little novels that crop up now and then that I’m reading along and mostly enjoying and by the end think, “hmm, that actually wasn’t all that good a book. But… “And really, from a critical standpoint, Throne of the Crescent Moon doesn’t have a lot going for it. And in some ways, it was a major disappointment. But…
The plot is relatively straightforward. In the Arabian-like city of Dhamsawaat, the last ghul hunter, Doctor Abdoulla Makhslood, is beginning to feel all his many decades and thus is ready to contemplate retirement and a life of peace. But when the love of his life (whom he had to sacrifice for his calling) asks him to look into a recent ghul slaughter, Abdoulla gets pulled into a plot that could lead to Dhamsawaat’s destruction and maybe even the end of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, if not the world itself. Together with his assistant Raseed, a pious and celibate Dervish of great martial ability but not a lot of life experience; Zamia Badawi, a nomadic tribeswoman who can take the shape of a lion; and his two longtime friends Dawoud (a magus) and Litaz (an alchemist), the Doctor must take on a long-dormant evil. Complicating matters is the growing tension in the city as the new Khalif, cruel and corrupt, faces off against an upstart Robin-Hood type known only as The Falcon Prince.
So a band of plucky, undermanned, outgunned, outnumbered, and somewhat distrustful of each other allies must fight off grotesque creatures of darkness in order to prevent a great evil from rising to power. So here is problem one — not the most original of storylines. The big picture plot is overly familiar and there aren’t enough twists and turns in the details to really add much freshness.
Problem two is that the characters are pretty one-note and predictable. Raseed is self-righteous, young, and overly pious. Toss in celibate, add one pretty girl who can change into a lion, and you can see how his storyline will run throughout the book and what his dilemma will be. Zamia is a bitter, outcast loner distrustful of people who is thrown in with others against her desire. Will she stay a bitter loner or will she learn to play nice with others? What do you think? The Doctor’s loyal, old friends are old and loyal and remark on this relatively often. The Doctor himself is feeling old, rues his sacrifices, and wishes he didn’t have to do this anymore. As he tells us again and again, though we never doubt he will in fact do this. The bad guys are, well, bad. The Falcon Prince is perhaps the most complex, but I can’t say much of what he does save one or two acts surprises all that much.
Problem three is the worldbuilding, which is pretty slim save for the details of the great city of Dhamsawaat, which does come alive in those moments we get to see it through the Doctor’s eyes. This is probably where I was most disappointed. I was really looking forward to an Arabia-based setting, as opposed to the same-old same-old medieval Western European setting we see so often. And as a huge fan of The Arabian Nights and similar tales, I was really looking forward to a fantastical menagerie with that slant. But while there were some nice little such touches (Abdoullah’s love of cardamom tea, the ghuls, the scripture quotes), I didn’t feel as steeped in the milieu as I wanted to feel.
Somewhat in the same vein, I was hoping for a more foreign type of magic. Instead, the magic here felt very two-dimensional, as if the merest glimpse beneath its surface would make it all collapse.
So an overly familiar plot riddled with the usual fantasy tropes and characters, sketchy world-building, predictable storylines, especially with two point-of-view characters (Zamia and Raseed), a weak magic structure, and somewhat cardboard villains. As I said, not a very good book at all. And yet…
I’ll be damned if I mostly didn’t enjoy Throne of the Crescent Moon nearly all the way through. The reason is pretty simple — the Doctor himself. There was just something about the guy I really liked. Sure, he complained a lot about his age, his aches and pains, his desire to just chuck it all and retire. But I kinda liked the old complaining guy who’d rather be putting his feet up and letting the young’uns take care of the world schtick. I liked his warm interaction with his two old friends. I liked his sarcastic but fond kids-these-days put-downs of Raseed and Zamia, several of which made me laugh out loud. I liked his Arabian Frank Cannon/Columbo (and yes, I know I’m dating myself badly. Look ‘em up) feel. His character and voice carried me through the story, not so high above the flaws that they weren’t noticeable, but high enough that they didn’t catch me up and make me want to stop reading.
So what to make of a not-so-well-written book that I liked anyway? Do I recommend Throne of the Crescent Moon because I did enjoy much of it and advise a pass since I thought much of it wasn’t very good? I’m going to go with the former. Partially because I think expectations can play a role here, and if you go in with lowered expectations, knowing in advance you’re going to get a very simple book (simple in plot, in character, in worldbuilding), with a taste rather than a heaping helping of Arabia, I think you’ll have a better chance of enjoying it. And also because it’s easy enough to figure out if the Doctor’s character and voice will carry you through. If you find yourself not caring much for his voice, or you find his voice isn’t outweighing the flaws, then I’d say don’t feel bad about giving it up; you’re not going to find much better going forward. Throne of the Crescent Moon ends with some resolution and some clear opportunity to see the Doctor again. I’ll give him another shot, though I won’t be expecting much from his friends and his story. Who knows, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.