A fat old wizard/demon hunter as the hero and central figure of the story, the swordsman as the more mature, but younger sidekick, and the setting a desert empire that resembles a Middle East and Egypt of myth. Not exactly the most typical ingredients for sword & sorcery novel, but the elements are somewhat familiar and the framework of the story – an impeding doom with an oppressive government – is recognizable. One can’t just add new ingredients to a new formula and expect it to magically work. Technique is required, and in this case, Saladin Ahmed breathes vitality and life into the sword and sorcery sub genre with Throne of the Crescent Moon, his debut novel and the first of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms saga.
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is that overweight, aged (60+) protagonist. He loves the city in which he lives, Dhamsawaat; and is the foremost ghul-hunter in the city, in fact he’s the last. His young assistant is the holy/monk swordsman Raseed bas Raseed who takes out monsters with his dual-tipped sword. When the two are tasked with investigating a string of ghul appearances, the cross paths with the were-lion Zamia, or as her powers are considered in Ahmed’s world – angel-touched. Zamia is the Protector of the Band, a desert wasteland tribe that, as Adoulla and Raseed meet Zamia, has been decimated. As the appointed protector, Zamia blames herself, but soon joins Adoulla and Raseed since they have a mutual goal of finding and eradicating the man responsible for creating these powerful ghuls. Complicating matters is the roguish Pharaad Az Hammaz AKA The Falcon Prince, a master thief/rebel who is seeking to bring down the strong, controlling grip of Khalif who sits upon the titular Throne. In addition to these characters, Ahmed surrounds Makshlood with a strong-knit group of associates who are much of a surrogate family for the good Doctor who would rather relax with a cup of tea alongside Miri, “the one that got away” than battle demons.
The threat of the ghuls is more than just random occurrence. The monsters encountered by Adoulla and his partner are larger and more powerful than any he’s encountered in the past. This leads the good doctor to surmise that a larger threat is present and creating these larger, more monstrous ghuls. When Adoulla and Raseed first encounter the Falcon Prince, Adoulla hesitantly allows for the thief’s safe passage and misleads his pursuers, strking up a somewhat early, if tenuous alliance with the vigilante. Adoulla is admonished by his pious, and young apprentice about breaking the lay and being an accomplice. Makhslood shakes him off a bit since the Doctor shares many with the Falcon Prince, specifically the increasingly strong and oppressive hold the Khalif has on the city.
As Adoulla, Raseed, and Zamia continue in their pursuit of the sorcerer responsible for creating the more powerful ghuls, they learn more about the forgotten history of their city and its seat of power. Another element Ahmed plays with along the way is a potential budding romance between Raseed and Zamia – it’s one of those cases where all the characters surrounding them can see sparks flying but the two involved try to ignore the sparks. The rigidness of both characters – Raseed as a devout holy warrior and Zamia a hardened protector who failed her tribe – makes for some well-realized scenes of awkwardness between the two though at other times the characters come off as a bit too stiff.
Where Ahmed excels is with his protagonist, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood. He’s the type of guy you want to have as the ‘crotchety but cool uncle’ at the bar with you to share a drink or at your side should that bar-room brawl occur. We get in the head of Makhslood as he re-examines the decisions he’s made in the immediate past and ponders of how he should best proceed particularly with the Falcon Prince. Where Adoulla shows the most emotion is in his regret of the lost love of Miri, who he set aside – for lack of a better term – to give into his calling as protector of Dhamsawaat, his city which he does truly love.
The pacing is terrific, as it drew me into the characters heads, I felt the high stakes of the conflict and really wanted these people to succeed. DAW wrapped this enthralling novel with a bright, eye-catching cover by Jason Chan that very much captures the feel of the novel displaying the three primary protagonists fighting a horde of ghuls. Over the course of the novel, I felt resonance between Throne of the Crescent Moon and comic book superheroes, specifically Batman and towards the end, characters in Watchmen.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is Ahmed’s first novel and at just under 300 pages, it is a tightly packed sword and sorcery adventure that is great proclamation of a new voice in fantasy. I want to follow more adventures of Doctor Mahslood and his surrogate family, I want to see if the relationship between Zamia and Raseed grows and I want to learn more about the enigmatic Falcon Prince.
I give Throne of the Crescent Moon the highest recommendation – a familiar framework with fresh ingredients mixed by a bold new voice makes for a most stand-out debut novel.
© 2012 Rob H. Bedford