Throne of the Crescent Moon: Stronger when it sidesteps genre conventions

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

Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon might well remind readers of the Arabian Nights, given that it’s the first thing mentioned by the publishers when advertising Ahmed’s debut fantasy novel. They could also mention that it offers almost everything readers tend to expect from the genre.

Dr. Adoulla Makhslood is a ghul hunter, one of the last of his kind. The magic system he employs relies on vials that he throws at ghuls, accompanied by spiritual invocations. For example, he might defeat a bone ghul with a potion and a proclamation like “God is the mercy that kills cruelty!” Adoulla is a seasoned veteran and he destroys ghuls, djenn, and other servants of the Traitorous Angel.

Adoulla has a sidekick: his apprentice Raseed bas Raseed. Though just a teenager, Raseed is already a gifted swordsman and a pious dervish. He is so pure that he even smells clean, as more than one character points out. In some ways Raseed seems more mature than his mentor, whom he chides for making so many oafish noises while dismounting from his camel. He is also forced to protect his mentor, whose life is now threatened by his age and ill health. Raseed thinks that he has figured out the world and how to live in it, but his confident certainty about the way the world should work is disrupted when he meets Zamia Badawi.

Zamia is a Bedouin girl who was made the protector of her band because she has the unusual power to turn into a lion. Her family and her band were killed by ghuls and she is hunting them to get vengeance. However, she is not very grateful when she crosses paths with Adoulla and Raseed, who may be professionals but who do not share her sense of reckless urgency.

The setting offers fantasy readers a pleasant escape from the mundane world. Dr. Adoulla and his charges live in Dhamsawaat, a wondrous city and the “Jewel of Abassen.” Dhamsawaat is ruled by the Khalif, but his power is now challenged by the seemingly disreputable Falcon Prince. There is unrest in Adoulla’s beloved city, and to make matters worse, Adoulla is encountering ghuls that are more powerful than any he has ever encountered before — all at a time when he devotes more time of every day to thoughts of retirement.

Throne of the Crescent Moon offers almost everything that readers expect from a fantasy novel, but it’s stronger when it sidesteps genre conventions. Ahmed’s choice of setting — clearly not inspired by medieval England or France — is refreshing. Dr. Adoulla, a fat old man whose soul is weighed down by “should haves,” is also an enjoyable perspective for fantasy. He may be a mentor, but his character is complex enough to keep him from becoming a Pez dispenser of wisdom. In fact, he spends most of his time complaining about crowds, his mistakes, and the pains that accompany age. He also struggles to understand the new generation, who never pay him the respect a man of his age should be afforded. Ironically, he just as often mocks Raseed for the latter’s attempts to act mature as he mocks Zamia for her disrespect.

Many readers will enjoy the monsters and ghul hunting that Ahmed describes. Unfortunately, the action tends to slow down when Ahmed devotes time connecting conventional dots. Raseed’s interactions with Zamia are especially formulaic. Eventually, I came to dread the passages narrated from the perspective of Raseed and Zamia. Throne of the Crescent Moon is a novel that could very well please fantasy readers, but I found too much of it dominated by all those things that readers expect from a fantasy.

I listened to Throne of the Crescent Moon on audio, performed by Phil Gigante. Gigante has a deep, sonorous voice that has the power to lull readers into a false sense of comfort before shifting to knock them out of their seat when ghuls attack. He does a fine job of capturing the complexity of Dr. Adoulla, though I found his reading of high-pitched, indignant Zamia and (also high-pitched) innocent Raseed somewhat grating. I’ll also admit that I found the accent that Gigante adopted often took me out of the text.

From Saladin Ahmed, finalist for the Nebula and Campbell Awards, comes one of the year’s most anticipated fantasy debuts, THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON, a fantasy adventure with all the magic of The Arabian Nights. The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, land of djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, Khalifs and killers, is at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. It is up to a handful of heroes to learn the truth behind these killings: Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, “The last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,” just wants a quiet cup of tea. Three score and more years old, he has grown weary of hunting monsters and saving lives, and is more than ready to retire from his dangerous and demanding vocation. But when an old flame’s family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter’s path. Raseed bas Raseed, Adoulla’s young assistant, a hidebound holy warrior whose prowess is matched only by his piety, is eager to deliver God’s justice. But even as Raseed’s sword is tested by ghuls and manjackals, his soul is tested when he and Adoulla cross paths with the tribeswoman Zamia. Zamia Badawi, Protector of the Band, has been gifted with the near-mythical power of the Lion-Shape, but shunned by her people for daring to take up a man’s title. She lives only to avenge her father’s death. Until she learns that Adoulla and his allies also hunt her father’s killer. Until she meets Raseed. When they learn that the murders and the Falcon Prince’s brewing revolution are connected, the companions must race against time–and struggle against their own misgivings–to save the life of a vicious despot. In so doing they discover a plot for the Throne of the Crescent Moon that threatens to turn Dhamsawaat, and the world itself, into a blood-soaked ruin.

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RYAN SKARDAL is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF. Ryan and his wife make their home in New Jersey, where they read alongside several cats and two highly disobedient huskies.

View all posts by Ryan Skardal

2 comments

  1. Hmm, I wonder if you would have found more favor with the book overall had you read it rather than listening to the audiobook.

  2. It sounds like Ryan mostly objected to the usual fantasy tropes, though he clearly says that this will be appealing to many readers. There is a reason people read fantasy, after all, which is that they like these familiar elements. It’s hard for a book to rise to the top, though, when it relies on them too much.

    As for the audio, Phil Gigante can be a bit over-the-top sometimes. He is amazing in performances that are supposed to be humorous or campy, but sometimes he overdoes it in more serious performances. That’s my experience, anyway.

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