Throne of the Crescent Moon
by Saladin Ahmed
Published in 2012
From Goodreads: The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, home to djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, are 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, is a hidebound holy warrior whose prowess is matched only by his piety. 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.
Aside from a few mentionings here and there from articles about fantasy novels that aren’t set in worlds based on northern Europe, I hadn’t really heard of Saladin Ahmed or his book, Throne of the Crescent Moon. It’s a high fantasy novel set in the Crescent Moon Kingdom, a land based on the deserts of northern Africa, with sprawling cities and endless desert dunes where the only sound you might hear is the howling of jackals. It’s a rich world full of sounds and smells where you can picture the people wandering the streets and practically taste the cardamom tea that one of the main characters, Adoulla loves so much. It’s also a world of poetry, holy books, and the very real presence of monsters summoned at the behest of the Traitorous Angel, who opposes the will of God.
Though the setting may be unfamiliar to many fantasy readers who are used to forests, mountains, and fairytale castles, the premise of the story and its characters will ring true. At its core, Throne of the Crescent Moon is a story of Good vs Evil. A dark power has been summoning monstrous ghuls– zombie-like creatures made from materials like bone or sand– to kill people, including entire families for an unknown purpose. Few people realize or want to believe this is happening, and so only a few stand to fight this growing threat. Adoulla, a sixty-something magician who has been fighting these creatures for decades and is tired of it all; Raseed, a young warrior who has great skill with a sword but has not yet learned how to tell the difference between what is the Law and what is Just; and Zamia, a young woman from the deep desert gifted with special powers, who seeks to avenge her father’s death. They are supported by Dawoud, a mage whose magic harms him even as it helps those around him, and his wife Litaz, an alkhemist who can cure or kill with her magical concoctions.
I quickly came to care for each of these characters, as they emerge almost fully fleshed from their first mentioning (though I wanted to give the younger characters, Zamia and Raseed a good shaking now and then for being dense. Ah, youth…), and I mourned their losses and celebrated their victories along with them. The city of Dhamsawaat, too, emerges as its own character, as cities are prone to do. Without Ahmed devoting pages to describing it all, Dhamsawaat feels like a real place, filled with sights and sounds and smells. Every time I came back to the story, I was immediately sucked back into Dhamsawaat and its labyrinthine streets.
Religion is a major part of Throne of the Crescent Moon. Ahmed grew up in an Arab American community in Michigan, and its easy to see Moslem poetry, art, and customs woven through the story. I’m certain that Adoullah, Raseed, and the other characters study a fantasy-world version of the Koran, and the poetry Adoulla recites here and there would not feel out of place in a book of Sufi verse. That’s not to say that the characters constantly speak in verse. Far from it. When you first meet Adoulla in his favorite tea house, he engages in a duel of insults with his old friend.
With other fantasy novels, I would probably be expected to describe the magic system. But I can’t do that with Throne of the Crescent Moon, because there is no single, overarching magic system that all the characters subscribe to, and none of them have descriptions of how they work. Adoulla’s magic is based upon words- he calls out lines of poetry and scripture to achieve his ends. Raseed’s magic is a physical one that allows him to move faster than normal humans; Zamia’s angelic gifts allow her to change her shape to protect people; Dawoud’s magic is an internal force that needs no specific focus, word, or spell. There are other magics as well. Some are cheap and easy, while others are expensive and only available to the wealthy few. It’s a messy world of magic in Dhamsawaat, and I love it all the more for it.
Ahmed manages to pack a massive amount of story into Throne of the Crescent Moon, given that it is only 274 pages long. In a genre where books often balloon out to 800 pages or more, Ahmed’s brevity is as refreshing as the cardamom tea Adoulla loves. If there is one critique I have, it is in the ending. The final battle’s conclusion felt a little rushed, with a couple of major plot points dealt with perhaps a page or two earlier than it should have been. But that is my only complaint. The ending, while not necessarily a happy one, is a fitting end. If the characters had acted any other way I would have suspected Ahmed of trying too hard to wrap a pretty bow around the whole story. Despite this being his first novel, Ahmed is a better writer than that.
Though a second book in this series is due out sometime later this year, Throne of the Crescent Moon works as a standalone novel. If you are looking for a high fantasy story that isn’t set in yet another land based on northern Europe, I would highly recommend it.