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Just Finished (For the third time) - 'Mirror Dance' by Lois McMaster Bujold

Sunday, April 14, 2013

2013 Hugo and Nebula Award Nominee- 'Throne of the Crescent Moon' by Saladin Ahmed

I bought this as an e-book so this is
the first I've seen of this cover.

There seems to have been a minor trend in Fantasy novels over the last decade or so to branch out from the mythology of Western Culture to more Eastern, African, or Middle Eastern Mythologies.  Which is none too soon as far as I'm concerned, I went over this a little in my review of N.K. Jemisin's 'Hundred Thousand Kingdoms,' but if I read another book with Knights and Wizards and epic quests that doesn't bring something new to the table and just retreads the same tired old story I think I'm going to throw up.  I understand that everything is new to everybody at some point, but there's no need to keep retreading the same used up Fantasy tropes over and over again, for people who are interested in that sort of thing there are fantasy novels stretching back to the Thirties that they could dig up and bring to light..  Michael Moorcock was saying the same thing as far back as 1978 in his essay 'Epic Pooh.'

Where Kingdoms took some of the mythology of India and crafted an interesting story 'Throne of the Crescent Moon' deals with the mythology of the Middle East.  It makes for a very interesting setting.  There are some other SF books that deal with Middle Eastern themes, notably Effinger's 'Marid Audran' series and Ian Mcdonald's 'The Dervish House' (though that was set in Turkey).  Both of those novels take place in the future and have a distinct Science Fiction vibe to go along with the Arabian Mythology.  Crescent Moon is the only Fantasy novel I can think of off the top of my head that takes place in an imagined past full of Middle Eastern Mythology.

Ahmed makes good use of that mythology too, drawing much of his subject matter from 'The Thousand and One Nights' but re-purposing it here for a more straightforward package.  Many of the elements within the novel will be vaguely familiar to Western Fantasy readers, the Djinn, Ghuls, Dervishes, and Sheiks are all familiar, but Ahmed puts just the proper amount of spin on the setting and layout to really entertain the reader. 

I can't speak enough about the setting Ahmed lays out here.  The city of Dhamsawaat is an interesting place. and the author obviously has a fully constructed world here.  Whatever other flaws the novel might have, the setting he has constructed more than earn him both the Hugo and Nebula nominations (and possibly the awards, we'll see in a few months).  I'm glad that the people giving out awards at least recognize there's something of an originality problem in Fantasy and they need to encourage more people to branch out more.  There's still a lot of mythology out there that hasn't really been covered, too much for us to still be reading about knights and orcs and dragons.  So whatever other flaws Crescent Moon might have I am totally behind it as far as the nominations go.

If there are any flaws to the novel it is in the characters anyway, not in the setting or the story being told here.  Several reviews have described it as a cross between The Thousand Nights and Dungeons and Dragons.  You can definitely see the influence of D&D in the characterization.  The mix of characters could almost have come out of an old Saturday morning cartoon.  You have basically a Ninja (the Dervish), a girl who can change into a lion, a healer, an all powerful wizard (coupled with a built-in excuse for why he can't use his power to solve every problem), and their leader, a grizzled veteran ready to retire from monster hunting after this one last job.  Except for the powers of the veteran leader who defeats monsters through scripture none of these are powers readers haven't seen before, and there is nothing so exceptional about them as to bowl the reader over.

This only becomes a problem in that we experience the majority of the novel through the eyes of these characters, rather than being led around it by an omniscient narrator.  I was disappointed in Ahmed's choice of third person subjective/limited for narrator.  The characters here are not as interesting as the city of Dhamsawaat and the overall setting of the novel, but we get much less of the city than we do the internal monologue of the various characters. 

It's not often I will fault a writer for spending too much time developing characters, but that seems to be the case here.  As the various characters traversed the city I found myself getting lost as to where they were in the city, and much more curious as to what color the bricks were on the walls or what the place smelled like than the what the characters were thinking about as they walked around.  I would have liked to experience Dhamsawaat in the same manner readers experienced New Crobuzon in Mieville's 'Perdido Street Station' or how readers met Istanbul in McDonald's 'The Dervish House.'  In those two novels the authors realized that it was the setting itself that made the novel special, and placed it at the forefront, the main character in McDonald's 'Dervish House' is not a man, but Istanbul itself, I wish Ahmed had taken the same path in Crescent. I wanted to be fully immersed in Dhamsawaat, and I only got glimpses of it here and there around the (not as interesting) thoughts of the characters.  An omniscient narrator to guide us through the city, spend some time and really flesh out the details would have been nice.

Ahmed plans to write two sequels to the novel, turning this into the first part of a trilogy.  Unless there are some major stylistic changes coming our way I don't expect the author to depart from what he accomplished here and write in a more detailed form.  Rather than complaining about what Ahmed doesn't do I should just be thankful for the great things he actually does, the brief glimpse of the city Dhamsawaat that we are allowed is more than enough to draw the reader in for the rest of the tale.  Ahmed leaves behind those tired Fantasy tropes (they're exhausted really and need a break) and gives the modern reader something new and refreshing. 

Perhaps this review said it best, Saladin Ahmed has given us a new Fantasy novel that 'Bouyantly fails to suck.'  Whether or not the rest of the books in this series receive any nominations I think people are starting to see that Fantasy needs to branch out some more, and even without those nominations I'm probably going to read the sequels too.

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