Thursday, April 26, 2012

Throne of the Crescent Moon

I just finished Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, a relatively slim new fantasy book I picked up from the library that's gotten a fair bit of good press since its release a few months ago.  If you spend a few minutes looking around, you can probably divine a few things about the book easily enough.  The title and cover art certainly suggest an "Arabian Nights" like vibe in the setting, and the author's name suggests that maybe he's not coming at it from the traditional "European guy obsessed with Orientalism" approach that the Arabian Nights vibe as we know it has been fueled by.  This movement among Europeans was especially prominent in the late 19th and early 20th century, and fueled the work of artists (like Edwin Weeks, for instance), writers like William Beckford, and many, many more.  It also, curiously, made a huge impression on pulp audiences and pulp writers, and as such, was hugely important to the development of fantasy the genre as we know it.  Robert E. Howard dabbled lots in Oriental Stories (even writing for the magazine of that name) and his creation of the Hyborian Age was largely fueled by his desire to write historical fiction without having to do all of the detailed research that actually informed his real historical fiction.  Clark Ashton Smith was a big fan, and echoes of Orientalism can easily be seen in his work; he even wrote a "fan fiction" sequel to the hugely influential novel Vathek.  H. P. Lovecraft also was a big Vathek fan, going so far as to specifically model both his story "Azathoth" and "The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath" after that seminal novel of Orientalism.

Ahmed, as you can probably guess from his name, actually is Arabic (although he was born and raised in the Arab-American community around Detroit) and therefore arguably comes at the material from a different point of view.  Many of the folks who've written about this book value that for it's own same, and lament the "lilly-white" status quo of fantasy fiction.  I actually don't; although I'm a huge fan of the Arabian Nights vibe as described by many Westerners over the years, I've often been a bit bewildered when folks writing from a different cultural point of view come up with stories that don't resonate with me (my biggest disconnect with American fandom of anime.)  In addition, I've often been disappointed with folks who make their take on the setting their only selling point.  How many reviewers and readers of Imaro, for example, can't think of anything really substantive to say about it other than it's a celebration of African culture in fantasy?  Well, that comes at a price (in Imaro's case, the price is well-developed characters and tight plotting, sacrificed in an effort for the writer to show off his anthropological know-how.)

I'm happy to report, though, that Throne of the Crescent Moon doesn't fall prey to any of these traps or flaws, although that doesn't mean that it's uniformly excellent of course.  Yes, the tone of the story is a bit different than what you'd expect if the author's name was John Smith or something like that, but at no point did the writer attempt to "show off" his cultural mileu; it's just part of the background, where it belongs.  In many ways, it's limited to snippets of dialogue and phrases, as well as spellings. For example, we get Khalif, Sultaan and ghul instead of the more usual caliph, sultan and ghoul--although that's mostly a forgiveable eccentricity.  The characters are reasonably well developed and likeable.  It is curious that there are a lot of point of view changes, however, for a novel as slim as it is (274 pages) which means that all of them are probably a bit lighter developed than they could have been.  Only one character, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, really felt sufficiently fleshed out to be real--the other two main point of view characters felt like cardboard. 

The plot was also reasonably well done and tight, although it suffers considerably from the villain appearing a bit from left field at the end of the novel.  Sure; we've had plenty of hints at what was coming, but honestly, we knew nothing (and still know nothing) about who this person is or what they want, or what their agenda is, or anything else other than "he's really bad."  And if the main plot is already a bit on the light side, there's also a side plot that eventually works its way into being integral with the resolution of the main plot involving the Falcon Prince, a kind of revolutionary Arabian Nights like version of Robin Hood.

The novel also ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.  Although it makes vague references to being part of some kind of series on the title page, so I assume that there are plans to further develop the story from here.  All in all, I found it a reasonably entertaining and breezy read, with a slightly different twist from what you might otherwise read.  Fans of old school sword and sorcery will especially find much to love here, both from setting standpoints, but also from a structural standpoint.  Saladin Ahmed made his name prior to the publication of this novel writing short stories, and in all ways, this feels like a short story that's just a bit longer than most.

A final note, one notable difference between this novel and one that would likely have been written by a Western fantasy writer, is the complete lack of a secularist undercurrent.  Western fantasy writers tend to either overemphasize religion in order to make some kind of point, or studiously avoid making much reference to religion playing any part in the lives of the characters of the setting.  Ahmed's book, however, has a strong undercurrent of religiousity--although it doesn't really have much difference on the development of the plot or the setting, little references here and there constantly remind one that it's an important part of life to the characters and all who surround them; a detail that I think modern Western fantasy skips to its detriment.

Now that it's finished, I'll be taking it back to the library--a friend in my gaming group, however, has already lent me two novels that I'm going to read before picking up any of my own again, both part of a new series by Harry Connelly.

No comments: