Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat, sighed as he read the lines. His own case, it seemed, was the opposite. He often felt tired of life, but he was not quite done with Dhamsawaat. After threescore and more years on God’s great earth, Adoulla found that his beloved birth city was one of the few things he was not tired of. The poetry of Ismi Shihab was another.
The Kingdoms of the Crescent Moon face a terrible threat. The rule of the almighty Khalif is cruel and corrupt, and his reign is challenged from within by theatrical master-thief Pharaad Az Hammaz, the so-called Falcon Prince. While the Falcon Prince stirs up trouble on the streets of the city of Dhamsawaat, the kingdom faces a larger, faceless threat from a malevolent force: Ghuls, great monsters of sand, skin and magic, are conjured by this great evil, and they will kill anyone in their path.
For the last great Ghul hunter in the kingdom, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, and his young Dervish priest apprentice, Raseed bas Raseed, the violence and death are frightening to the extreme. Though Adoulla is old, tired and only wants to leave his past behind to retire in the arms of his soul mate, Miri, he cannot rest until he has ensured his beloved city is safe from a prophecy of blood and death. Joining Adoulla and apprentice Raseed in their onerous task is Zamia Banu Laith Badawi, a 15-year-old girl who has already witnessed great tragedy. The Ghuls killed her entire clan, an atrocity all the more bitter because the slaughter occurred under her watch. Zamia is no ordinary young woman, but an angel-touched shapeshifter, both a lioness and a woman at once. Vowing vengeance for her murdered band, Zamia joins the Doctor and his Dervish partner, and together the trio sets out to save the throne of the Crescent Moon from the face of true evil.
The debut novel from Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon came out last year to warm reception; this past month, the book made the shortlist of nominees for Best Novel in the annual Nebula Awards. Since a nomination for the Nebula is one of the most prestigious SFF honors, handpicked by members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), I had to purchase the book immediately. And, for the most part, I can understand the love for this book. Throne of the Crescent Moon is an undeniably fun and action-packed read, featuring endearing characters and a compelling, refreshingly non-white, non-Western European setting. Wonderfully fast-paced, with plenty of scenes of blood, magic and death, Ahmed is a natural when it comes to action scenes and moving the story forward in clashes of steel and brilliant flares of sorcery. I also thoroughly enjoyed the world Ahmed creates in the Kingdoms of the Crescent Moon: the deep religious beliefs, the rigid monarchy, and the social strata that divide its inhabitants.
Most of all, however, I loved the main characters that for the novel’s core and serve as the true emotional driving force of the book. Doctor Adoulla—affectionately nicknamed “Doullie” by his friends—is an old man that loves his things and the one woman who will own his heart until the day he dies. Adoulla is not just some weary, wizened Van Helsing type, though—he has his strong unconventional opinions, a love for food and life, and quite the social, outgoing personality. His apprentice, Raseed, is another fantastic character, rigidly adhering to the letter of his faith, though he eventually does question and open his heart and mind to things outside his scripture. And, of course, there is Zamia. Oh, Zamia. Lioness shapeshifter, fiercely proud to the point of ignorance, but loyal to a fault, Zamia is an infuriating but eminently endearing heroine. (I dare you to read this book and not fall in love with the headstrong Zami. Go for it. I dare you.)
While there are so many wonderful things going for this book, there are a few significant flaws, too. Most notably, the writing is overwrought and manufactured, with awkward failed attempts at Arabian Nights–style antiquity. Of course, the greatest shortcoming of Throne of the Crescent Moon—that is, its similarity (and admitted inferiority) to fellow Nebula nominee N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon—isn’t any fault of the book or author. Nevertheless, the comparisons are unavoidable. Like Jemisin’s novel, Crescent Moon is set in a similar type of Near Eastern setting. Both books feature a trio of protagonists, including one wizened old leader, his warrior priest apprentice and a prickly, powerful woman. Both books also feature a great evil awakening and draining the land slowly of its magic. Of course, there are plenty of differences between the two texts, but if Jemisin’s book is a beautiful, slow-simmering ossobuco of a novel, Ahmed’s is more of a Big Mac: delicious and hits the spot, but lacks the nuance, finesse and depth of the Dreamblood books.
All things said and done, Throne of the Crescent Moon is still an undeniably fun read, and I’m happy to see it up for the Nebula. I’ll certainly be back for the next installment.
In Book Smugglerish, a rousing 7 sand-Ghuls out of 10.