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

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin AhmedSaladin 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.

~Ryan Skardal

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin AhmedThrone 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.

~Bill Capossere

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin AhmedWhile I had read some of Saladin Ahmed’s short fiction, I was pretty late to the party on his novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon. The book was nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo in 2013. Anyway, this week I finally got around to it. This is a fun fantasy adventure in a fantastical Middle Eastern setting, filled with lovely descriptions of the main city and genuinely terrifying monsters, the ghuls.

The story is pretty traditional. Adoulla is a ghul-hunter, but he is getting old and tired, and likes his creature comforts: tea-cakes and cardamom tea, his townhouse and his books. Unfortunately, the city and surrounding countryside is being attacked by ghuls that are stronger and more numerous than any before, and Adoulla is one of the few remaining ghul-hunters. With his young, upright and up-tight dervish apprentice Raseed, Adoulla sets out to investigate and soon uncovers a magical plot to overthrow the Khalif and destroy the city of Dhamsawaat. Along the way Adoulla picks up a few more sidekicks and reconnects with old friends who also use magic to fight evil.

I liked Adoulla’s magical power, which combined word magic (sacred texts) and potions to destroy the ghuls. Generally, the monster-fighters are nothing new; there’s a feisty desert young desert tribeswoman, just about Raseed’s age (what a surprise!); and Adoulla’s friends, necromancer Dawoud and his wife Litaz who is skilled in the art of alchemy. There is an acrobatic, laughing, shifty Prince of Thieves character and the usual assortment of corrupt guards and out-of-touch royal leaders. What I think is different here, though, is the age of the group; Adoulla, Dawoud and Litaz are older, at the end of their careers, and that’s an interesting point at which to introduce a band of heroes.

The stakes are high and the mystery of the adversary is well-developed. In the first half there are plenty of action sequences and magical sequences. In the second half, the story bogs down a bit as we get lots of exposition, with ghul murders happening off-stage. Ahmed also has his characters confront discrimination and repression from the very people they work to protect, and the younger characters, Zamia the tribeswoman and Raseed, face their own prejudices and limiting beliefs. Ultimately, the story’s ending seems less glorious and more realistic, given the politics of the world that’s been created.

I have to say I didn’t love Ahmed’s prose. It was a bit clunky, which is strange because I have not found that in the Ahmed short stories I’ve read. Some descriptions at the front of book just sparkled for me; I could smell the cardamom tea and the manure-scented dust of the street. Later, though, that concrete sense faded and the work dipped into cliché enough to be noticeable. I think the book got Nebula and Hugo nods for its world-building and the introduction of magic based on a belief system that was new to many of us. The book gets the sense of a truly different fantasy world, from the smells, to the customs, to the food, exactly right.

With summer coming, Throne of the Crescent Moon is a fine summer book, an exciting tale with an underpinning of friendship and loyalty. This is the by-the-pool book you are looking for.

~Marion Deeds

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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

View all posts by Ryan Skardal


  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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