In Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed creates a textured fantasy, rich in detail and polished writing. The novel takes place in the city of Dhamsawaat, which is a metropolis at the heart of an empire. For the main character, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the city is his true love. Throne of the Crescent Moon breaks from some fantasy tropes, but then hews closely to other aspects of the genre.
While Adoulla is the main character, the novel has more of an ensemble cast with chapters from other character’s point-of-view. In Adoulla’s party, there is a Dervish, who’s a religious swordsman; a woman from the plains who can turn into a Tiger; and then there are an aging magus and an alchemist. The latter two are old friends of the Doctor, while the Dervish and the were-tiger are the newer, younger models.
In most fantasy novels, the young, naive character would probably be the star of the novel. He or she would need guidance from an older mentor at some point, in order to complete their quest.1Video: Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey abridged However, in Throne of the Crescent Moon, the hero is the mentor. He wants to stop. He wants to retire. He’s trying to train the Dervish, Raseed, but there’s a wide gap in their world-view. Imagine how Star Wars would look if the movie was told from Obi-wan Kenobi or Yoda’s perspective and not Luke Skywalker’s? Adoulla also seems a bit like an aged Van Helsing. He hunts ghuls, which are elemental creatures with a core of decay that are made by magicians of ill intent.
Another texture to the novel is how religion permeates the atmosphere. Magic, in this world, comes from God. Or, at least, that’s what these characters all believe. It’s refreshing to read a fantasy novel that incorporates religion to such a degree. Adoulla has prayer-inscribed needles. He and his companions are doing the work of the Ministering Angels, while their foes are agents of the Traitorous Angel. In his teaching of Raseed, Adoulla makes a point to try and show the contradiction between the true ways of God and those who claim to act in the name of God. Is good something one can determine on their own or is a dogma needed to guide one toward what is good?
Where the novel takes a dip in quality is pacing. The first 90 pages are clear and focused. Then the next 120 pages or so are spent shifting between character’s perspectives, recuperating, and learning. It felt like a useful writing exercise that should have been edited out of the book. How would this look like from Raseed’s perspective? What about from Litaz, Dawoud, or Zamia’s perspective? It offers insight. It lets the reader understand the characters better and their relation to one another; but, it also slows the pace to a crawl, and I hate to say it, is a little boring.
When the end arrives, it’s over too fast. The challenge is not that challenging. There is no real loss from the characters and not much change. It’s too manufactured. In Adoulla’s view of the world not being so black and white, for the end of the novel things are disappointingly binary.
Given all that, I still recommend the book for people who enjoy fantasy. The world and characters Ahmed creates are wonderful. The story is a little shaky, but the journey is still pleasurable.