There are ghuls on the loose in the kingdoms of the Crescent Moon, but Dr. Adoulla, the last living ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat, is old, tired, and out of shape. Nowadays, he much prefers eating a good meal, reading some poetry and sipping cardamom tea over hunting down the fearsome, unnatural creatures who serve the Traitorous Angel. However, when two family members of his old flame Miri get slaughtered, he reluctantly gets involved, hoping to win back her heart.
Together with his young assistant Raseed bas Raseed, a devout dervish with incredible fighting skills, Dr. Adoulla leaves the great city to investigate the site of the murder. There, they meet a young tribeswoman named Zamia, who is blessed with the power to shift into the shape of a lion and who has her own reasons to hunt down the unusually powerful ghuls that are on the loose. Dr. Adoulla, Raseed and Zamia decide to join forces, but when they return to Dhamsawaat, they discover that the hunt for the ghuls has become nothing less than personal now…
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed is, to put it plainly and simply, a blast from start to finish. The best way to think of this novel is as an old-fashioned sword and sorcery novel, except the swords are scimitars and the sorcery has a mystical, semi-religious flavor to it. Aside from those factors, this book has a lot in common with something like, say, one of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser books. What’s most stunning, given that this is a debut novel, is that it’s not that far from those classics in terms of quality.
It’s hard to decide where to begin when listing the strengths of this novel. Characters, maybe? Saladin Ahmed has assembled a wonderful ensemble cast for Throne of the Crescent Moons. Dr. Adoulla takes most of the chapters in terms of point of view, and he’s a wonderful character: a kind but somewhat grumpy old man who likes eating and reading poetry and trading insults with his friends. He was a powerful ghul hunter in his day, and he still considers it his duty to destroy the foul creatures, but he also feels that he’s earned the right to enjoy his old age rather than risk life and limb fighting ghastly monsters.
Dr. Adoulla could carry the novel in his own right, but the friends who help him in this mission each get one or more chapters, and what’s maybe most surprising is that each and every one of them feels like a fully realized, well rounded character who could be the protagonist in their own right. Raseed bas Raseed is the strictly devout dervish with incredible sword skills who uses his faith as a shield against the temptations of the world. Zamia is the fierce tribeswoman out for revenge, but she soon discovers that she has feelings for the young and powerful Raseed. And finally, Adoulla’s loyal friends Dawoud the magus and Litaz the healer are such a fascinating couple that I’d like nothing more than to read an entire novel about their lives right this very instant, Mr. Ahmed. Each of these characters have separate side plots, making this a novel filled with small stories that tick along like small cogs inside the mechanism of the larger plot.
The setting of this novel is its second main strength. Dhamsawaat is one of the most vibrant fantasy cities I’ve encountered in years. Saladin Ahmed makes it come alive with vivid descriptions of the sounds, sights and smells that make it such a bustling metropolis. It’s one of those fictional places that begin to feel real after a while, which is quite an accomplishment, given that this novel is barely 300 pages long. Aside from the ghul threat, there’s a second main plot that involves growing political turmoil in the city: the dashing Falcon Prince is aiming to overthrow the corrupt young Khalif. The threat of civil war is very real and adds a surprising dimension to the main plot. Dhamsawaat reads exactly like a city in a fantasy novel should: alive with its own energy in a way that’s purely enjoyable, and working side by side with the narrative without overshadowing it. What’s even more promising is the map at the front of the book: the city, as wonderful as it is, is only a tiny fraction of Saladin Ahmed’s fantasy world. The novel is filled with references to other areas, countries and races that play small parts in this story without taking it over. There is an abundance of material here for future stories. I hate to keep harping on this, but seriously, Mr. Ahmed, I hope it won’t take too long.
Last but not least, the prose. Oh, the prose. Saladin Ahmed has achieved something you don’t see very often here, something that almost sounds like a contradiction: while this novel is barely 300 pages long, it feels much longer – and that’s not a bad thing. Throne of the Crescent Moon is a novel you’ll want to read slowly so you can savor the way Ahmed uses a few carefully chosen words to describe something other writers might devote a full paragraph too. At the same time, there are a few dialogues that basically consist of characters joshing back and forth with each other. Those don’t contribute all that much to progressing the plot, but there’s such pure and simple joy and humor in them that they still amplify the overall power of the prose. Fritz Leiber again comes to mind as an obvious comparison, as he was a writer who could paint a scene with a handful of words and then devote half a page to the banter of his two unforgettable protagonists.
Convinced yet? Yep, it’s that good. Yes, you should read this novel. Throne of the Crescent Moon is a supremely entertaining novel that should make it onto the final ballots of many major awards. Get it now so in a few decades you’ll be able to say that you’ve been reading Saladin Ahmed since back when he was a debut novelist.