Everyone knows about the Arabian Nights, right? Those stories spun by a captive Princess, who postponed death by entertaining her sociopathic husband with tales of genies and rogues, magic and pioneering sailors? They’re right up there among the literary treasures of the world, and plenty of people have plundered them and created compelling entertainment. My favourite example is Disney’s Aladdin, which offered a highly sanitised version of the original, and while indulging in (now) problematic exoticisation of the ‘East’, brought about many people’s sexual awakening.
Given the status of these stories, and the ‘mystical’ flavour of the Middle East in general, it is a little odd that not much fantasy set in this realm has made it into the mainstream. Sure, there’s been plenty of movies that exploit these settings, but full-length fantasy novels (in English and published by American/British houses)? Not so much.
Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon rights that. Set in Dhamsawaat, the capital of the Caliphate of Abassen (one of the three Crescent Moon kingdoms), the book follows the struggle of Adoulla Makhslood, ageing ghul-hunter, and his friends to (you guessed it) save the world from doom and destruction at the hands of a bloodthirsty, power hungry megalomaniac. This is complicated by the fact that none of those in power believe him, and in fact, seem to do everything they can to hinder the team’s efforts.
The appeal of the book, for me, lay chiefly in the portrayal of Dhamsawaat. Ahmed captures both the complexity of a large city—its varying cultures, the worlds within worlds, the sheer diversity of people and classes that make it up—as well as the differing relationships people have to it. This is where most of the action takes place, and each of the characters in Adoulla’s group has a specific view of the city. For Zamia, the Badawi tribeswoman from the desert, it is an unknown land, a site of strange smells and peoples. For Raseed bas Raseed, Dervish and holy warrior, it is a site of temptation from his chosen path. And importantly, for Adoulla, it is home: a place at once loved and detested, filled with people he has dedicated his life to protecting, often receiving little to no recognition for his sacrifices. But as Adoulla keeps reminding himself ‘He who tires of Dhamsawaat tires of life,’ and that has not happened to him quite yet.
I don’t recall reading a fantasy book—a high fantasy book, I should specifiy—that placed the city front and centre in quite the way that Ahmed’s does. Not all the characters are ‘natives’ of this place: in fact, only Adoulla can claim to have grown up in Dhamsawaat. Circumstances have brought the others here, and though they may not relate to the place in the same manner that the ghul hunter does, not see it as ‘home’ (with all the layers of meaning and emotion that word evokes), they feel some form of obligation, if not connection, to its winding streets and put-upon residents. Indeed, one of the main conflicts that Litaz, an alkhemist from the Soo Republic (one of the other Crescent Moon kingdoms) seems to face is when to leave the ‘damned city’, and go home. Being a woman with her heart and priorities in the right place, she chooses to postpone it till the saving-the-world has been attended to.
Ahmed has built an engaging, multihued world, filled with characters who face down inner demons as threatening as the ones they meet in real life. The dialogue can, at times, become stilted and rather strangely Tolkien (excessive formality in fantasy will do that to you), but the narrative as a whole is fast paced and pelts the reader on from encounter to encounter, introducing characters with a sort of breathless energy and hurtling towards a bloodsoaked, sword and sorcery conclusion. This is the first of a trilogy according to the blurb, and Ahmed does leave tantalising openings for the next book. So come on down, stop on by, there are no carpets that fly, but step into the Dhamsawaati night.