Throne of the Crescent Moon: Not well-written but surprisingly enjoyable

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin AhmedThrone of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

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.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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  1. I read an essay by this author several months ago (can’t remember where) about non-Western fantasy settings. It was a good, thoughtful essay but made me think this book would have a more tangible world. However, as an achy “old-guy” who *has* put her feet up and left things to the young-uns, and remembers both Cannon and Columbo, I think I might like this!

  2. I sampled this but it didn’t seem like my kind of thing.

  3. This book is #1 on my list of examples of how pen ‘n’ paper roleplaying has been injected into fantasy books. The whole thing felt like it had been someone’s D&D campaign and the setting came off as though the writer had done his reasearch by reading roleplaying game supplements.

  4. I’ve been noticing the migration of gaming into fiction; both good and bad. Game developers have a strong sense of plot, but surprisingly, world building and character revelation seems to be a challenge; not unlike the way writers “graduating” from the fan fiction world and suddenly have to reveal original characters sometimes struggle.

  5. Kevin B /

    Hmm, I’m mostly in agreement here. Though overall I don’t have such a negative outlook of the authors craft, but at the same time I didn’t enjoy it as much as you seem to have done either.

    This book is getting rave reviews and really good press from other authors and sites all over the place, and I honestly don’t see why.

    Sometimes it happens: I don’t like a generally acclaimed book, but I do see why other people did like it and where all the acclaim is coming from. The book’s just not for me.

    As I said, I don’t think it’s badly written, and that Arabian nights setting is different from the European inspired stuff I usually read (though I honestly do prefer that), and I did enjoy the crotchety old geezer protagonist, and some of the other characters were fun too (though not Raseed, dimwitted religious zealots just annoy me). I can’t even pin-point one thing and say: this was badly done. All in all though this book left me a little “meh” and I just don’t see what about it makes people so lyrical.

    • It’s kind of interesting Kevin that I thought the craft aspects were worse than you did yet I enjoyed it more. Reader response is a funny thing . . .

    • Garth 6 /

      Rave reviews aside, this thing just sucks. The setting is cool and the potential was there for a good story, but the characters are miserable, unlikable and one-dimensional. The dialogue consist more of a series of preachy, alternating monologues. The magic is indeed undefined and paper-thin.

      C’mon, there are much better things to read.

  6. I had a lot of the same thoughts when I read this book, too. I loved the Doctor, especially the way he cast his spells, he had a solid plot arc as well. The other two main characters were alright, but the romantic subplot could feel pretty cheesy at times. I liked the Middle Eastern inspired setting, but more could have been done to immerse me in the world Ahmed created.

    There was a lot of potential in this book, but it just fell short.

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