Tuesday, April 10, 2012
I suspect my first exposure to Arabian fantasy was through the medium of the 1958 film, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, which I must have seen on television when I was a young boy. That hooked me on the genre, as did the releases, in 1974 and 1977, of two more Sinbad movies, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, both of which I remember seeing in the theater. All of these films featured the stop-motion animation of the brilliant Ray Harryhausen, which was also in my beloved Jason and the Argonauts. Later, I read various translations of the 1001 Nights, in addition to "Oriental" pulp stories I found in old paperback collections from my local public library. None of these influences gave me much insight into the real history and culture of Near and Middle Easts, but they planted the seeds of my later investigation into those topics.
Thus, to say that I was a very receptive audience for Saladin Ahmed's debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon is a bit of an understatement, especially as last year's Desert of Souls had already whetted my appetite for more Arabian fantasies. Now, I don't want to compare the two novels, since they're actually quite different from one another, but there are two aspects that are similar enough to warrant comment. First, each novel focuses on an adventurous duo whose association reminds one of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, though, in the case of The Throne of the Crescent Moon, the duo eventually becomes a trio. Second, each novel is, by the standards of contemporary fantasy, quite short, with Ahmed's novel being a delightfully slim 274 pages.
There the similarities (largely) end. Whereas Desert of Souls is a historical fantasy, Throne of the Crescent Moon is a full-on fantasy, taking place in an imaginary land known as the Crescent Moon Kingdoms. This land, whose greatest city is Dhamsawaat, is a fantastical analog of the medieval Middle East, which immediately sets the novel apart from most of the others you'll find in its section of the bookstore. This gives Ahmed a great deal of latitude in presenting both the setting and its characters, such as its senior protagonist, Dr Adoulla Makhslood, an older man who is "the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat." Ghuls are nasty magical monsters employed as minions by evil sorcerers and Adoulla has spent his life battling them -- and those who create them. As the novel opens, he is hoping to retire and allow his apprentice, the novel's second protagonist, the dervish Raseed bas Raseed, to assume his duties.
Of course, there'd be no story if Adoulla actually did retire. Instead, the aging ghul hunter receives a desperate message from his unrequited love, Miri Almoussa, who begs him to look into the murder of her niece and her husband, indicating that "it was neither man nor animal that killed them." Though stung by the fact that Miri did not come to make her request of him in person, Adoulla nevertheless agrees to go on one, last adventure for her sake. He and Raseed then set off to investigate this tragedy, in the process meeting the novel's third protagonist, Zamia Badawi, the last of her band and gifted by God with lion-shape. Together, these three characters attempt to solve not only the mystery of the death of Miri's niece but also a greater mystery that threatens the political stability of Dhamsawaat.
I really enjoyed Throne of the Crescent Moon, which not only has a lively, quick-moving plot but, more importantly, many well-drawn and believable characters, not least of all Adoulla Makhslood. It's rare to see a fat, bearded, and balding man portrayed heroically in a sword-and-sorcery tale such as this one; it helps, of course, that Adoulla is as charming as he is erudite. But Adoulla is not alone. Both Raseed and Zamia feel like real people, with all the quirks and contradictions one expects. The book is also noteworthy in its positive presentation of religion. The society of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms is suffused with religiosity in a way that's generally absent from a lot of medieval European-style fantasy. It's not just window dressing added by the author but an integral part of the setting he's created. I really appreciated that.
My only real complaint about the novel -- and it's a small one -- is that it tends to ramble and lose focus from time to time. I suspect this has to do with the fact that Ahmed wants to show off as much of his world as he can, even when it slows the pace of the building action or otherwise interferes with structure of the narrative. As I said, it's a small thing and because I so enjoyed the setting, I mostly didn't care about the unexpected pauses that pop from time to time. Indeed, some readers may welcome this respites from the relentless pacing that carries the story along once Adoulla accepts Miri's request.
In any event, Throne of the Crescent Moon is a great read and one I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys Sinbad movies, 1001 Nights, and the medieval Middle East. I can't wait for further volumes in what has already been declared an ongoing series.