Feb 7 2012 11:00am

A Ghul Hunter Longing For Cardamom Tea: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

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.

Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.

Daniel Hoagland
1. danielrixy
I read "Where Virtue Lives" a few years ago in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and it was fantastic. Then I promptly forgot who wrote it and where I read it, but I would routinely remember that strangely wonderful Aladdin-flavored fantasy story about the magic and the monsters and the world-weary Doctor Adoulla and half-heartedly look around the internet for it.

Then, today, Tor came to the rescue! As soon as I read the second paragraph, I knew this was it. A quick check of the author's bibliography page on his website revealed the provenance of that short story (only 2009? feels like years and years ago) and...well, suffice to say I am buying this book even as I type this.
Jonathan Chen
2. jonc
I'm not sure how it is in the US, but for most names of Middle East origin, the first name is a person's name, the last name is their father's name. You should be referring to the author as Saladin instead of Ahmed.
3. Shellywb
I've also read "Where Virtue Lives" (a short story set in the same universe). What I remember most about it was the language, which had a flow to it that took me to another time and place. It was beautifully done. I'm looking forward to reading this.
Wesley Parish
4. Aladdin_Sane
A lot of the very earliest folk tales I read originated in the Middle East: Aladdin, Sinbad, Rustem and Sohrab, and a lot of others. They were translated though by the time they reached me, and I've sometimes wondered about "traduttore, traditore" in that context, what with the prevalent notions of Arabs and Persians being "luxurious" in mind and habit - whereas in fact that was a feature of the nobility and royalty, as in Europe, not of the common man (See Candide by Voltaire, for example).

It's about time someone from that set of traditions got and wrote from it. I look forward to getting my grubby little paws on Throne of the Crescent Moon.
5. apokalypsis
Ever since reading The Hakawati, I've been jonesing for more novel-length Middle Eastern fantasy. Loved Saladin's short fiction, so I'm really looking forward to digging into Throne of the Crescent Moon!
6. pixiepepper
Easily the most overrated book I've ever read. The characters are flat and lifeless, and the plot points are laughably dull. There was nothing compelling me through the story except for the fact that it was under 300 pages long. The only thing this book had going for it was a setting that was slightly different from most fantasy, but there was only so much I could take as far as shoddy reasoning, forced romance, and boring-to-death plot. Honestly, why all the love for this book?

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