Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
|Book Name:||Throne of the Crescent Moon|
|Publisher(s):||DAW Hardcover (US) Gollancz (UK)|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook|
|Release Date:||February 7, 2012 (US) January 17, 2013 (UK)|
You know when you first read or watch something, and you’re like, “Can’t believe how crap that was” or “Did not like that at all”, but then, by some fortuitous turn of events, you watch or read that same thing again, and you’re like “That was awesome” or “hilarious” or “actually not that bad”. “What was up with me the first time around?” Well, I had one of those, to a less dramatic degree, with Throne of the Crescent Moon.
Here’s the official blurb:
The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, land of djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, Khalifs and killers, is at boiling point. A power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince is reaching its climax. In the midst of this brewing rebellion, a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. Only a handful of reluctant heroes can learn the truth, and stop the killing.
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood just wants a quiet cup of tea. Three score and more years old, he has grown weary of hunting monsters and saving lives, and is more than ready to retire from his dangerous and demanding vocation. But when an old flame’s family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter’s path. Raseed bas Raseed, Adoulla’s young assistant, a hidebound holy warrior whose prowess is matched only by his piety, is eager to deliver God’s justice. Zamia Badawi has been gifted with the near-mythical power of the Lion-Shape, but shunned by her people for daring to take up a man’s title. She lives only to avenge her father’s death. Until she learns that Adoulla and his allies also hunt her father’s killer. Until she meets Raseed.
When they learn that the murders and the Falcon Prince’s brewing revolution are connected, the companions must race against time to save the life of a vicious despot. In so doing they discover a plot for the Throne of the Crescent Moon that threatens to turn the city, and the world itself, into a blood-soaked ruin.
So context is a large part of experience. If you expect something to be great and it’s merely good, you’re left with the impression it was much worse than it actually was; or, on the other hand, if you expect something to be crap, and it’s actually not that bad, your impression is more favourable than it would’ve been otherwise.
Now I know I’m a bit late to the party, but I went into Throne fully expecting from what I’d been hearing (and because Saladin is huge on Twitter) that it’d be THE debut novel (2012/13) to rival other big name debuts of recent years. But. Yeah. It just wasn’t. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but I wasn’t left exactly chomping at the bit to read the next book in the as-yet-to-be-published trilogy, and in many ways I felt severely disappointed.
Then I read it again.
What I Liked
Loved the opening scene: A palace guardsman shut in a red lacquered box, obviously being tortured, who no longer has the energy to even try and remember his own name. (Yeah, it gets a little dark, but what’s not to love?) It’s a great hook that pulls you in and keeps you in. More than that, the scene introduces you to Ahmed’s style.
Now for my money style is where Ahmed excels. The prose is short, sharp, to the point–poetic even–and demands to be read out loud. The description is impressionistic in the way he names a thing, gives a brushstroke of description and moves on, and economic in that it allows the story to zip along at pace. The dialogue is sharp, witty and mostly tag-less, which again provides for economy and allows it to speak for itself and the author to get out of the way of the experience.
Throne is essentially a tale of the characters’ struggles to save the city of Dhamsawaat, and it wastes little time in getting to business. The main plot (also the sorcerous one) moves along at a ripping pace, and the perspective characters have their own subplots, which broaden the city, colour the narrative and flesh them all out in interesting ways. The secondary plot (the mundane one involving the Falcon Prince and his Robin Hood-like exploits against the villainous Khalif) happens off-screen for the most part, though it does intersect with the main plot from time to time, most importantly later on. (…Yeah, I can’t tell you everything.)
As for the perspective characters, I love the way Ahmed sets multiple perspectives on a situation, which make the fight scenes, in particular, multi-layered and riveting, but he also sets the perspective characters on themselves, and the results are illuminating. Every perspective character sees things the others do not, usually leading to some witty observation or fond mocking that makes the characters a joy to inhabit, each telling the story in their own unique way, with their own voices, motivations and interior lives.
Zamia and Raseed, however, were by far my favourites, mostly because their very awkward and hilariously self-recriminating romance sparks internal conflicts that force both characters to confront deep-seated ideas and beliefs, and grow. In other words I really enjoyed their character arcs, which provided energy the story could not have done without.
I also enjoyed Mouw Awa the man-jackal, one of Throne’s villains (won’t go too much into them here, they’re rather black and white, if at turns hilarious and terrifying), but Mouw Awa is something special (Throne’s answer to Gollum) and cannot be missed.
Which leads me to my other point: Ahmed is funny. Hilariously, laugh out loud funny at times, which keeps the mood reasonably light (too light sometimes), despite the horrors that seem almost commonplace in this world.
I also loved the fact the world is a middle-eastern, 1001 Nights-inspired setting, simply for its difference. The Islamic-world analogue infuses every aspect of the work, from teahouses and poetry to the Heavenly Chapters (Throne’s answer to the Qur’an), which every character quotes in thought and speech for blessings, curses and everything in between.
What I Didn’t Like
The sheer number of Happy Coincidences. Happy Coincidences (sounds vaguely dirty but isn’t) are like deus ex machinas or backwards Final Destinations, the unlikely events that accrue to have someone or -thing at just the right place and time to save someone’s life, or solve a problem, or stop them walking into a huge pile of…. Anyway, simply put, Throne has way too many of them: 5, 6, 7 maybe? Now the reason is something like God is looking out for his agents on earth (“O believer! Look to the accident that is no accident!”), which is fine, it’s just…because there are so many of these coincidences, the one or two crucial moments, upon which the story hinges, and which should be awesome, and in every other way are, whose Happy Coincidences would have otherwise come as welcome and thrilling surprises, actually feel unsurprising, and as such disappointing, because you know they’re going to happen. This sucks the life out of the events, not to mention steals the characters’ agency (by stopping them making the really hard decisions that could lead to greater and/or more personal conflict) or allows their problems to be solved too easily, without the full extent of hard work done on their parts to make the resolution, of whatever conflict they are trying to resolve, satisfying. And it gets old. Fast.
The other thing I didn’t like, funnily enough, was the economy. Now, before you get up in arms, let me clarify: it’s a different economy to the one I mentioned above, an economy of style, yes, but also story. It kind of manifests itself here as control or skill (if that makes sense). Events are tight, streamlined, and as such allow the story to zip along, but this economy leaves no room for breadth of experience. The neatness or tightness of the story narrows the expansive possibilities of the form (to my mind), and leaves out the mess, the noise, the little incongruities or interests or touches that allow for the potential of things or events beyond the immediate story’s confines, and that tell us without a shadow of a doubt: “Hey, there’s world outside!”
Much along the same lines, and again another casualty of the double-edged economy sword is description. I know I said I like its impressionistic quality, and I do, but it’s very impressionism limits its depth. In the introductory scene with the guardsman, for example, we are told the guardsman ‘felt the knife dig into his skin’, but not how that felt. We have specificity but little sensory experience, the ‘how’ of the feeling. Now this is not always the case (I can immediately contrast this with Adoulla’s rapturous experience of sweet cardamom tea), but it is often so, and I found it, particularly in my first read through, and along with a lack of sufficiently grounding description, to be a barrier to my complete immersion in the story.
Now for me (and it is a matter of taste), when I read a work of fiction, and especially a fantasy, I want to be immersed in it, in that world, to lose myself for a time, be caught in that fictional dream. It is that immersion in fantastical worlds, worlds not my own, that led me to fantasy and started my whole love affair with it in the first place. It is that inhabitable-ness of a story-world that I love, and here I found myself unable to fully do that.
This is probably what I reacted to most strongly in my first read-through, and what in my second became less of an issue due to accumulated experience, which is why I was able to enjoy the story more, making it well worth the second read.
Throne of the Crescent Moon was an interesting read, a good read, and a decent story. It was populated with well-drawn, often hilarious, and seriously likable characters. And it was very well written. Did I enjoy it? Yes, with reservations. But I do look forward to book two and to getting back into the heads of its vibrant, distinctive characters, particularly fiery Zamia and pious Raseed.