Throne of the Crescent Moon is a fantasy adventure in a Middle Eastern inspired world. What’s not to like?
Indeed, there is a lot to like in this book.
It is mostly set in the city of Dhamsawaat, which is one of the realest cities I’ve encountered in the genre. Not just because of the pleasing (and less-pleasing) sensory details, from spices to excrement, monumental architecture to crowded streets, but because it is inhabited by people of all backgrounds. It is a full and lively and sometimes unpleasant city, rather than a decorative adventure ground for the very rich. Saladin Ahmed is well aware of the realities of life for the less privileged inhabitants of Dhamsawaat, evidenced very neatly when Miri, a female brothel-owner, says:
And a war inside the city? Almighty God forbid it. Do you know what happens to whores in a war, Doullie? Of course you do. I’ve got arson and rape on the one hand and a clinking coin purse on the other, Doullie. For me and mine, it’s an easy choice. I’ve got a house full of innocent girls to protect here.
It is also a city in flux, as the book takes place during the rise in popularity of the Falcon Prince, a Lord of Thieves type character who wants to overthrow the hereditary leaders. I enjoy a changing world, especially one that calls into question the rightfulness of hereditary rule – it is a refreshing change from most adventure fantasy, which is notorious for maintaining the status quo, usually by restoring the “rightful” person to the throne. While the Falcon Prince isn’t who I would choose to a rule a city either, that’s not really the point: the city is questioning its ways and changing, because that’s what cities do.
However, the Falcon Prince’s plot against the throne is not the main focus of the plot. That lies with Adoulla, the last ghul hunter, who is old and tired and wants only to retire, except that duty means he keeps heeding the call to action.
Adoulla has now been called to fight more ghuls, but these ones are more ferocious than anticipated – and controlled by someone with terrifying powers that threaten Dhamsawaat and the whole world beyond it. Adoulla and his young devout Dervish assistant Raseed must join forces with Zamia, a young desert tribeswoman determined to avenge her family who were killed by the same ghuls, and two of Adoulla’s old friends, Litaz and Dawoud, to find a way to save Dhamsawaat.
Unfortunately, after opening with a fun sequence of Adoulla and Raseed leaving the city, fighting the ghuls, meeting Zamia and returning to the city, Throne of the Crescent Moon starts to plod. For several chapters, different characters set out across the city to have an important conversation or acquire an important item: Adoulla talks to Miri, Raseed goes to buy an alchemical ingredient, Dawoud tries to get an audience with the Khalif to convince him of the danger Dhamsawaat faces. While all of these individual pieces are interesting and sometimes exciting (Raseed encounters the Falcon Prince, Dawoud’s audience does not go well), they do not cohese into a well-paced whole. Finally, in the third act, the pace kicks up again as the group set out to fight the power behind the ghuls, which takes some interesting twists along the way (although I found some aspects of the resolution a little too easy).
This may sound like I found Throne of the Crescent Moon disappointing, but that is happily not the case: it is an enjoyable book for other reasons.
One of these is the women. As the quote from Miri hopefully hinted, the women of Throne of the Crescent Moon have opinions and strengths – an array of strengths, even. While Miri is only a minor character in terms of the narrative, she affects the main male character, Adoulla, and causes him to make a significant decision: she is important to Adoulla, and the narrative does not treat her impact as trivial or negative. I hope we see more of her in future books. That she provides a voice for sex workers in her brothel and treats them as working people worth defending and caring for is an additional, excellent touch. Sex workers are not there for male titillation: they are people, potentially very vulnerable people if war breaks out.
Litaz, the other mature woman, is a pleasure to read: competent and collected, she provides wisdom alongside Adoulla and Dawoud, and in contrast to hot-headed Raseed and Zamia. She is not a warrior woman, preferring to use her alchemy as a defensive weapon if she must get involved in violence, although she also carries a dagger. Clearly she would rather not get involved at all, but the dangers facing Dhamsawaat call for her. But, though she wants to defend Dhamsawaat from evil, she has her own, personal wants too, chief among them a desire to return to her birth-land before her husband is too old and unwell to travel: she is more than what the immediate narrative demands of her.
Zamia and Raseed are the hot-headed youngsters, usually the focus of an adventure fantasy, but in this case are paired up with calmer, older people (to the sporadic frustration of both parties). It is another way in which Throne of the Crescent Moon is refreshing: it is not wholly about young, able-bodied warriors.
I liked Zamia a lot. She’s tough and powerful and passionate, with a quest for revenge that she won’t let anyone get in the way of. In her band, she was given the role of protector despite her youth and her gender – women aren’t even supposed to have her shape-changing abilities. I would have liked to hear about her mother or her relationship with other women of the band, though. Zamia’s childhood trips a little into the One Cool Girl trope, in that she doesn’t really seem to think about other girls or women and is closest to her father. In Dhamsawaat she gravitates towards Raseed, because of their closeness in age and her fascination with how devout he is – and, quickly and very predictably, their mutual attraction.
While I found the speed at which they fell in love rather ridiculous, I liked the reason: it is not just physical but spiritual, as they are drawn to each other’s devoutness. They also have a couple of fun awkward moments, my favourite being when Zamia takes Raseed aside and points out that if he does want to marry her, he’ll have to ask her directly, because her father is no longer alive. Cue a very flustered Raseed. Can we have a small cheer for the woman being the more direct, assertive one of the two? Yes, let’s have a small cheer. (Spoilers for the ending: I like that they don’t get together, because they both have other paths to take that are more important than romance, although I think it’s quite clear they will be together by the end of the series – but by that point they will be more mature, worldly people, which is infinitely more interesting than going from 0 to Teen Love & Marriage in just a few hundred pages.)
There was, however, one woman-related moment that made me side-eye the book:
Before she could get her dagger up, the man punched her in the face. Stars of red light and burning tears filled her eyes, and blood flowed from her nose. She was a woman. God had not made her body for this.
Erm. Being punched in the nose does that to everyone, no matter the configuration of their body. Really. I got taught in self-defence classes to palm-punch attackers for that very reason: it fucking hurts and it brings tears to the person’s eyes, hopefully buying the puncher some time to run away. And I’m not sure why Litaz, who has thus far shown no signs of internalised misogyny – indeed, Dhamsawaat seems to be vaguely egalitarian, although the issue is never specifically addressed – is suddenly spouting off this idea that women aren’t built for fighting.
Zamia’s character makes it clear that this isn’t factually the case – and Litaz is far from helpless, in her own way – which meant this rather came out of nowhere.
The spiritual aspect of Throne of the Crescent Moon is another of its strengths. Faith is omnipresent and unquestioned, while being quite individual: Adoulla and Raseed have very different relationships with God, much to Raseed’s endless dismay. (The dynamic between the two is good fun.) It is a very real faith, a part of life, as vital as eating, and that too is rare in a genre where vague paganism or nods towards the existence of a church are much more common. It is also a faith based on Islam, which is rarer yet.
So there’s a lot I liked about Throne of the Crescent Moon. I wish I could have loved it. It’s certainly a fun read and refreshing in several ways, but at its core it’s a light adventure novel – and while I have nothing against light adventure novels per se, I found myself wondering if Throne of the Crescent Moon could have been funner, or chewier, or something more than it was, which at times felt a bit thin despite the great city and diverse characters. That said, I did enjoy it and I look forward to seeing where Ahmed takes the characters in the second book: though I’m slightly underwhelmed, I still want to read more.
Now see this note about reviewing books in a society that encourages the internalisation of misogyny and homophobia. While I enjoyed this book as I read it, I missed a lot of problems because they are thoroughly normalised by our society. To read about the problems in detail, I refer you to Requires Hate: Part 1 and Part 2.