“A pulp story with a more mature and thoughtful edge.”
Throne of the Crescent Moon provides a great juxtaposition: an epic fantasy maintaining all the flavor and most of the scope of the genre, but comes in at under 300 pages when most are easily over 800. A pulp story with a more mature and thoughtful edge.
A medieval-flavored work, as is pretty standard for the genre, but set in a folkloric middle east, rather than the far overdone generic Europe. A story set in a desert in the metaphorical past, but with a city-based sensibility that makes it feel almost like Contemporary Urban Fantasy.
It is the story of the last of the ghul-hunters, Doctor Adulla Makhslood, an old man who has seen far too much blood and death and is far too aware that he’s the last of his kind, who finds himself the only one suited to take on the return of an ancient and terrible evil terrorizing the capital city of a desert kingdom. At his side, he has the sword-wielding holy warrior Raseed bas Raseed, sworn to have nothing to do with the normal lives of men except to fight to serve god, but he’s young and trying to temper his impetuousness, and is bound to his vows with the strictness of the newly-initiated.
When the two investigate the death of a family outside the city walls, they meet Zamia Banu Laith Badawi, last of her kind, too, a young girl who can take the shape of a lion who was meant to be the protector of her desert nomad tribe, and who is now out to avenge their mass death at the claws of the same ghuls the men are hunting. With the help of Adulla’s old friends, a mage and an alkhemist, they discover that the mage behind it all is bound to the throne and the history of the kingdom at large—but most of the story has to do with how these five characters handle aging, their God-given talents, the weight of responsibility they each have to take on and the strange paths love leads you down.
It’s a very personal story, infused with the sense of a grand imperial history and the feeling that the current kingdom is not at its peak. There’s a general feeling of majestic decay, an urban flavor like walking around through the old buildings in Egypt now, if they were all still inhabited despite the fall they’d gone through.
There’s also a feeling that this could be the more realistic, but no less magical world that the Arabian Nights happened in, that those stories could have been actual historical accounts rather than fairy tales.
It makes for a rich and often beautiful book, and a delicious read. The detail dedicated to drawing the world is sumptuous and makes it feel real without skimping on the dirt and grime of anything urban—nor on the brutal reality of the poor living under the reign of a mad king.
The pacing is good, the plot pretty straight forward, and there is the wild indulgence of the old pulp sword-and-sorcery stories threaded throughout, but tempered by a mature view and a more sensible take on all the elements. Adulla is not a muscled young hero; he’s an old man who wants to retire and can’t, and most of the romance of his profession has worn off. His two best friends are almost as old, one worn down by his use of magic and one longing to return to her homeland and carrying too many personal losses.
The young two, the ones most suited for a pulpy plotline, are bound by religious fervor that is constantly being tested on the one hand, and by a desperate need for revenge that trumps everything else on the other.
Together, all these elements make for a fun, exciting book that touches on topics like what dedication really is, how people who survive terrible events deal with their consequences, and what can be done about the choices people with more power and less conscience make—all without once belaboring the point of focusing too heavily on the themes.
It’s the story, the adventure that’s center stage, and if the writing is sometimes a little stilted, the beauty of the rest of it makes up for it—and the action keeps the story moving even when the characters have no idea what to do next.
As a debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon is strong and shows a whole lot of promise. This world is packed with other stories that could be told, but the voice in this book leaves no doubt that Mr. Ahmed could tell them.