LitStack Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Cover of the mass market paperback.

Throne of the Crescent Moon
Saladin Ahmed
DAW Books
Release Date:  February 7, 2012
ISBN 978-0-7564-0711-7

Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Crawford, Gemmell, and British Fantasy Awards. Winner of the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights. This book comes with a pretty impressive résumé.

But what I loved most about Throne of the Crescent Moon is that it has at its heart a central character that is unapologetically old – white haired and seasoned, yearning for retirement – and fat, and caustic, and more interested in a good cup of cardamom tea than adventure and derring-do.  Which doesn’t mean that there is no adventure or derring-do in Throne of the Crescent Moon! Just that Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat, is more resigned to adventure that comes his way, rather than in a state of anticipation for it.

Ghuls are man-shaped monsters, raised by evil magicians bent on acquiring power and sowing chaos in the name of the Traitorous Angel. It takes a finely honed ability to create and cast the magical incantations that will destroy these abominations and defeat their makers. One needs a great deal of magical skill and a life time of knowledge gained to become a genuine ghul hunter.

But the scourge of ghul-raising is less common now that the Khalif has instilled “order” with his court magi, so there are only a few who turn against the Throne of the Crescent Moon in service of the Traitorous Angel. Since there are fewer ghuls to hunt, there are fewer willing to take up that dying art, and the old man is tired, uninterested in drumming up new recruits or going to the effort of training any who show an interest. But this means when the nephew of a former flame shows up with blood on his clothes from the murder of his family by bone ghuls, Dr. Adoulla has no recourse but to journey out to find the fiends himself.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is a fanciful, and at times harrowing fantasy tale with a Middle-Eastern vibe that is a welcome break from zombies, vampires, dark elves or killer androids. The plot is a touch thin, but that allows for a wealth of character and world building that makes this book an utter pleasure to read. Some of my favorite passages held virtually no action, such as when Adoulla trades quips and insults with Yehyeh, the proprietor of his favorite tea shop – the two old men have raised name calling to an art. These scenes may do little to forward the story line but give welcome depth to the world in which Dr. Adoulla lives, and give great insight into why he is willing to sacrifice so much to safeguard it. This ability to tell a story rather than merely write a book is part of what sets this particular fantasy novel apart from so many others.

A word of warning, though – this is not some lightweight tale merely shot through with Eastern mysticism and wisdom, there are some aspects to this story that are terrifying, and hard to read. Indeed, the very opening scene is so brutal that it took me a few tries to get through it. But the violence and brutality is not gratuitous; instead, it underpins that threat that is lurking below the surface of the politics of the land. For while Dr. Adoulla and his assistant, the young holy warrior Raseed of the Order of Dervishes, may stride out from Dhamsawaat to ferret out a pocket of bone ghuls, they stumble upon a conspiracy involving far more powerful and dire forces than they imagined or originally feared, ones that left unchallenged, may change the fate of the entire world and do away with everything they hold dear.

All is not completely grim, though. Dr. Adoulla and Raseed also come across friends, such as the god-touched Badawi girl bent on retribution for her tribe that has been completely wiped out by the same ghuls that Dr. Adoulla seeks. There are also those that we are not sure are friend or foe, but who also seek to rid the world of the agents of the Traitorous Angel – human form or not.

It’s a gripping, sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant tale that is both exotic and familiar, horrifying and uplifting, heartbreaking and triumphant. Part of a series (but as of yet, no sequel on the horizon), Throne of the Crescent Moon is a vivid, rewarding read that deserves all the accolades that it has received.

~ Sharon Browning

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