An Arab-American Fantasy Epic
Being a fan of a particular genre of work doesn't blind you to its flaws. So being an unabashed admirer of both Science Fiction and Fantasy hasn't prevented me from seeing how, aside from a few notable exceptions, lily white and Euro-centric both genres happen to be. While apologists can probably make a case for writers like Tolkien describing his villains as either "swarthy" or "svart" while his heroes are universally pale-skinned by employing the well-worn "product of his times" argument, those writing in the latter decades of the twentieth century can't be offered the same out.
In fact one would have hoped those in the business of writing about the future would have taken that opportunity to create worlds reflecting the social changes that occurred during the years they were writing. At the very least it would have been nice to see a few darker skinned characters created without the adjective exotic tagged onto their description.
When you consider the wealth of material from around the world that could spark an author's imagination, or the fact that you can't walk down a street in any major Western city without seeing an exciting mix of ethnicities among the populace, it is a little disconcerting to be reading freshly published books perpetuating old stereotypes of dark villains threatening the virtue of some pale-skinned lovely.
A "White Anglo-Saxon Protestant only" club
Part of the explanation could lie in the fact that when you look at photos taken at gatherings of fantasy writers, you'll notice quite a difference from what you'd see on the street. It's awfully reminiscent of shots taken at what used to be referred to as exclusive or restricted clubs, i.e. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant only.
This isn't a deliberate thing, nor is racism implied, but it is a fact, and one that doesn't look like its changing with any speed. For in spite of the subject matter, science fiction and fantasy publishers are just as conservative, if not more so, than their mainstream counterparts. All of which goes a long way in explaining my interest in Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.
The combination of the book's title and the author's name led me to correctly assume the book wouldn't be drawing upon the usual European cultural pool for its inspiration. Even the little I know about the rich tradition of myths and legends in the Islamic world is sufficient to know there's a rich vein of material waiting to be mined by the right fantasy writer. Ahmed has a solid history as a short story writer, even being a finalist for a couple of awards, however this is his first full-length novel, and it's not always a smooth transition from one format to another. While I was happy to see an author looking to other traditions for inspiration, what really matters is how well he or she is able to handle the basics of storytelling.
In this case the answer to that question is as good as, if not better than, anyone else out there writing fantasy today. Ahmed has created a vibrant and exciting world where his characters both live and have the adventures which form the basis of the story. Like many fantasy writers, he has chosen to base his world on a version of our past.
In this case he has looked to the ancient east African city states of the Islamic world. The majority of the tale takes place within the walls of the great city Dhamsawaat with the characters making only occasional forays beyond its walls into the countryside surrounding it. While there are five main characters involved in telling us the story, the city becomes another character who lives and breathes alongside everybody else. Ahmed's descriptions of the city are so vivid she takes on the type of distinct personality we ascribe to the places we are most familiar with.
Fighting ghuls and demons
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is feeling every one of his three score and ten years these days. A good many of those years have been spent keeping the people of his beloved Dhamsawaat safe from the monsters sent to plague mankind by the Traitorous Angel. While it's true the doctor has been doing the work of the Blessed God, he's as profane as any street urchin trying to spot a pocket ripe for the picking. In order to be able to perform the magic necessary to dispatch the ghuls and assorted demons he faces in his work, the Doctor has had to make sacrifices, chief among them not being able to marry and raise a family.
As this story commences he's forcibly reminded of this prohibition when he's asked to investigate reports of a ghul attack by the woman who has been the love of his live for decades. Only his calling has prevented him from marrying her. While in the past he'd been able to make peace with this trade-off, recently he's began to feel the beginning of resentment towards having been denied the simple pleasures of a normal life.
Unlike the good Doctor his young assistant, Raseed bas Raseed, a warrior in the holy order of dervishes, is pious to the point of being inflexible in his judgements of others and himself. You either live according to the dictates of the Traditions or you're morally lacking. However he finds himself sorely tested when he and the Doctor meet a young tribeswomen, Zamia Badawi, during their pursuit of the ghuls responsible for the most recent attack.
The fact that she is blessed by the angels with the ability to assume the shape of a lioness armed with silver claws and teeth and saves both men's lives is only part of the problem. For the first time in his life Raseed finds himself beset with feelings that have nothing to do with his sacred calling and everything to do with Zamia.
Unfortunately he's picked the worst time possible to be plagued with doubts and distractions, for it turns out this new attack isn't just some minor magic user, but something far more ancient and evil. These days most spell casters are only able to raise one or two ghuls and have to keep them in site in order to control them. However the creatures the Doctor, Raseed and Zamia defeated outside the city were on their own and far stronger than anything Makhslood has faced in decades.
Then upon their return to the city they are attacked in the Doctor's home by more ghuls and something even more deadly. A creature made of shadow, part man, part jackal, who can't be harmed by normal weapons, only by those made of silver. It's only through the timely intervention of his close friends and neighbours, Dawoud Son-of-Wajeed, a magus, and his wife Litaz, the alchemist, they survive the attack. For while Zamia's silver claws were able to wound the thing that called itself Mouw Awa, it also gave her a horrible festering wound which untreated would have gradually eaten her soul. Only the combined workings of Dawoud and Litaz were able to save her.
Finding out who is behind the attacks is only the first hurdle the Doctor and his allies face. The shadow creature had mentioned something about its "blessed friend" sitting on the Cobra Throne and thus gaining the power needed to rule and create armies of monsters. If that wasn't bad enough the city is also in the midst of a power struggle on the mortal plane.
The current Khalif is a brutal and greedy man who makes life miserable for most of his citizens through crippling taxes and his cruel version of justice. A bandit calling himself the Falcon Prince has been carrying out a covert war against the Khalif for a while now, and judging by his actions he looks to be preparing his final push against the throne. Is it merely a coincidence the Falcon Prince's uprising is coming to a head at the same time as the mysterious ghul attacks are increasing? Or is there some insidious connection between the two seemingly unrelated events?
In Throne of the Crescent Moon Ahmed does a wonderful job of not only spinning a fascinating story that will hold a reader's attention from beginning to end, but of bringing an environment most of his audience won't be familiar with to life. While some authors might have over-explained and filled the story with unnecessary details, supplying background information about the culture his world is based on, he is able to paint his picture solely through the deeds and thoughts of his characters.
Whether it's something simple like describing the type of tea the Doctor prefers to start his morning with or a little more involved such as Raseed quoting scripture as he lambastes himself for his failings, by the end of the book you'll be as comfortable reading in this environment as you would one based on a culture and society you're more knowledgeable about.
However, don't read this book because it's different. Read it because its well written. The fact that it adds some much needed diversity to the genre is a bonus. Even better is the promise of more stories set in this world the sub-title, Book One of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, offers. Now that's something to look forward to.
© Qantara.de 2013
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de