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.