Friday, January 16, 2015

Fantasy Novel Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon

Jacket art by Jason Chan

These past two months I decided to get back into fantasy novels.  For the better part of 2014 my engagement in the genre was mostly limited to role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Fire Emblem, and various television shows and comics such as Fullmetal Alchemist.  But after hearing the hype surrounding Game of Thrones and realizing that I have yet to read 
frequently-mentioned classics such as A Wizard of Earthsea, I delved back into the traditional literary world in search of gripping plots and ideas both classic and new.

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed was one such story I found, and I could hardly put it down once I started reading.  The characters, the world, and the action scenes are very well-done and rarely fell flat.  It is a sword and sorcery novel drawing inspiration from Arabian themes and folklore, a noticeable choice which stands out amid the fantasy counterpart Western Europes dotting the shelves.

The novel centers around the good Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, an elderly veteran of a prestigious order of ghul hunters who are now few and far between in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms.  In spite of his desire to retire from his duties and live out the rest of his life in peace, the ever-present danger of vicious monsters and wicked sorcerers plaguing innocent folk draws him back into the fold time and time again.  What starts out as a simple mission of tracking down the undead responsible for a family's murder grows into a larger plot of forgotten magic and impending civil war which threatens to plunge the great city of Dhamsawaat into chaos.

Ahmed's world-building is organic, adding over time with revealed information instead of having entire histories and events dumped on the reader in one go.  For example, when Adoulla comes back to his home in the impoverished Scholar's Quarter, we get a glimpse into the woes of Dhamsawaat's poor.  This later plays into the emerging popularity of the upstart Falcon Prince, first revealed to us when the legendary rebel saves a child-thief from an executioner's axe.  There are many forms of magic and supernatural creatures in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, and while there is a bit of detail on the various kinds of disciplines and traditions, the "magic system" as it is is not codified to the point where all mystery is lost.

Aiding Adoulla in his quest is his steadfast companion Raseed bas Raseed, a devoutly religious warrior whose martial prowess is exceeded by his honor to God, and Zamia Badawi, the last member of a nomadic tribe whose people were massacred by the ghuls of the same sorcerer Adoulla is hunting.  All three characters have personality and play off of each other well, and amidst the adventure and mystery there are side plots which show that they're all people with lives outside of their duties.

Adoulla still has feelings for Miri, a brothel madame and information broker who he last met with on bad terms.  Raseed sees the world in straightforward black and white and believes in the rightness of  law and order, which brings him to internal conflict when those in authority stand between him and doing the right thing.  Zamia was blessed with the rare power of the Lion Shape, which led to the other tribes shunning her people for assuming a traditionally-masculine title.  Amidst her quest for revenge are the lingering thoughts of being the last of her Badawi and her mutual feelings for Raseed.

Personally I felt that Zamia was the least-developed, in that her desire for vengeance and being the last of her tribe kind of limits her story potential.  Adoulla and Raseed, in comparison, have more variety in how their motivations interact with the surrounding plot.  My other major criticism of the book is that it ends with several unresolved ties, although that should hopefully be cured in short order once the sequel comes out.

The book's pace is good, and when it does slow down it doesn't take long to switch to another scene or character's point of view.  The overall shortness of the novel (my version has 274 pages) means that it can be completed relatively quickly via a casual reading.  While it is in no comparison to some of the door-stopper novels in the fantasy genre, precious little of it is artificial padding making it money well spent in my view.

Final Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars.  Throne of the Crescent Moon has fun characters, an engaging plot, and strikes the right balance between too much detail and not enough when it comes to 
world-building.  I look forward to reading more about the Crescent Moon Kingdoms and the people which inhabit them.