When a fantasy novel comes along and isn’t set in a pseudo-medieval, Caucasian-populated knockoff of Northern Europe, it’s cause for celebration. When it’s as engaging as Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, it’s even better. Ahmed, whose short stories have been nominated for Nebula and Campbell awards, delivers an excellent debut set in a richly detailed fantasy world that owes more to The One Thousand and One Nights than to Tolkien, and is very much the better for it.
Dhamsawaat, “King of Cities, Jewel of Abassen” is home to Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last of the city’s ghul hunters, and his young assistant Raseed bas Raseed, a deeply religious dervish who, with his superb fighting skills, wields the sword that lends material support to the Doctor’s magic. Adoulla is an old man who claims to long for nothing more than a quiet retirement supplemented with ample cups of cardamom tea, but he and Raseed are fated to find themselves deep in trouble in short order.
For Dhamsawaat is in a state of unrest, the populace caught between the hard hand of the ruthless Khalif and the dashing prince of thieves Pharaad az Hammaz. Meanwhile, a terrifying monster with ghuls at its disposal is murdering people outside the city’s walls and ripping out their very souls—and his victims include the tribe of the shapeshifter girl Zamia Badu Laith Badawi, who Adoulla and Raseed encounter when they strike out in search of the monster. It isn’t long before Adoulla, Raseed, and Zamia, along with Adoulla’s friends Dawoud and Litaz, discover that the ghastly supernatural murders are part of a plot aimed at the Throne of the Crescent Moon itself, and that the fate of Dhamsawaat—and quite possibly the entire world—hangs in the balance.
The vivid world of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms is rich with allusions to Middle Eastern folklore and culture, and that alone makes it worthy of attention. Of course, striking a much-needed blow in the service of diversity in fantasy fiction is but one asset, and fortunately Ahmed uses this setting to deliver a well-crafted, fast-paced adventure with a highly entertaining cast of characters, each with a distinctive voice. Adoulla is a man of much learning and experience (too much, he might say) who also cheerfully enjoys the worldly pleasures of good food and a proper cup of tea; Dawoud and Litaz are a happily married older couple of long standing. In contrast, Raseed is still learning that the real world demands more flexibility than he has managed to learn from the strict teachings of his order, and Zamia, orphaned and tribeless, must learn how to negotiate the cosmopolis of Dhamsawaat and her own ambitions and desires.
Ahmed manages to pack a lot of story into this novel, and it’s almost too rich with it, the way a piece of baklava almost has too much honey. How, you might ask, is Pharaad az Hammaz — the thief known as the Falcon Prince — going to come into play in opposition to the monstrous man-jackal Mouw Awa (a creepy and revolting villain, and one of Ahmed’s most memorable creations)? What role will brothel-keeper and Adoulla’s old flame Miri Almoussa play in finding out who the powerful ghul-creating mage is? What does the mage have to do with the Khalif and his repressive laws? Yet Ahmed manages to wind up all of these disparate threads in a satisfying conclusion, while still leaving the door open for more adventures in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms.
If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that the novel is too heavily loaded in the final act—very suddenly, the villains’ schemes are rapidly uncovered, a new key character is introduced at the eleventh hour, and the rush to the conclusion is very fast indeed. On the whole, though, this only detracts a little from the reader’s overall enjoyment. If the city of Dhamsawaat alone is any indication, the Crescent Moon Kingdoms are a rich and fascinating place, and it’s clear that Ahmed intends to explore a great deal more of them in the future. And that’s something we can look forward to eagerly.