Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon

written by David Steffen

This is the last of my reviews of works nominated for a 2013 Hugo Award. When the voting deadline came around, I was about halfway through reading this book, so I finished it up and wrote the review when I found the time. Throne of the Crescent Moon is the first novel by Saladin Ahmed, published by DAW books. You may recognize his name from his previous poem and short story sales. He’s been nominated for the John W. Campbell award, and his name has been appearing more frequently over the past few years.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is an epic fantasy story focused mainly around the ghul hunter Adoulla Makhslood and his assistant Raseed bas Raseed. Adoulla is the last member of his profession left in the world, with his stainless white kaftan that represents his profession. He’s not what you might expect from the job title, though, a fat and grumpy old man who’d like nothing better than to retire, drink tea, and rekindle a lost love who was driven away by his work. But if he retired, there would be no ghul hunters to oppose those who would raise monstrous ghuls from the elements to gain power in the world. Raseed bas Raseed is a young and lightning-fast dervish, a holy warrior who is a deadly fighter, but who is often unprepared for the hars realities of the world and who often finds himself and others failing to meet his lofty standards. Adoulla has hunted many ghuls over his decades of work, and Raseed has gained some experience alongside Adoulla, but now they are facing a new threat more dire than any that either of them have ever faced before, more dire than they thought possible. It will take all of their best efforts and great assistance from their friends to see them successfully through this trial. The fate of the world as they know it depends upon them.

Apart from any other aspects of the book, Throne of the Crescent Moon is notable among so many other epic fantasies in that the central cultures in this story are based around Middle Eastern cultures, setting it apart from the Euro-centric fantasy worldbuilding that has been the standard for a long time. That’s great; anything that encourages more creativity and variety in speculative fiction is a wonderful thing, though in my opinion. I understand why some have expressed great excitement about the book because of its roots being different than what we’re used to. Personally, that’s not what I focus on. I want a good story, period. Happily, this was also a good story, with good writing, and good characters, and doesn’t rely on its different roots to be its only redeeming factor. It is not a crutch, only one aspect of a good book, and I’m happy to see that.

The main party of the book, totaling five people in all, is a varied and interesting group who each get their own POV sections within the story (though Adoulla and Raseed are clearly the focus). There are at least four different magic systems at work among the group, suggesting a very diverse magical world, which helps keep all the characters vital, and makes the world more interesting. The story takes place in a time of political unrest as the Falcon Prince urges the citizens to overthrow the Kalif who rules the city. This political situation ties makes the city feel like a much more real place.

I really don’t have anything bad to say about the book. In the end, I ended up voting for John Scalzi’s Redshirts over this one, but only because that one felt entirely novel in a way that book plots rarely do, because of its strange metafiction format. Despite the Middle Eastern inspired setting in this book, I didn’t feel it made the story into a category of its own–we’re still talking warriors and magicians facing off against monsters–it’s a change in scenery and culture, but not really of format. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s the primary reason why it didn’t garner my primary vote this year.

I would recommend the book to anyone who likes epic fantasy. Well done, Mr. Ahmed.