Dr. Adoulla Makhslood is a ghul-hunter, a slayer of monsters who battles against the evil wizards who summon them. He is also in his sixties and feeling his age. Raseed bas Raseed is his protege, a holy Dervish warrior with legendary sword skills but awkward social graces. A new commission leads them to a chance meeting with Zamia, a desert tribeswoman with the ability to transform into a lion. As Raseed struggles with his vow of chastity, the band of adventurers learn of a great threat to the city of Dhamsawaat and have to join forces with a dubious thief prince to defeat it.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is the debut novel by Saladin Ahmed and the first novel in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms series. It's a rollicking, swashbuckling, grin-inducing romp of a book which takes inspiration from The Arabian Nights and never lets up in its ability to entertain.
The book draws on Arabian mythology and history, so the book immediately has a different feeling to most faux-European fantasy novels. Indeed, whilst reading the novel I was reminded of the immensely fun Al-Qadim roleplaying world (for 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons) from the mid-1990s, which featured bands of heroic adventurers and noble thieves tackling trickster djinn and corrupt viziers with nary an orc or elf in sight.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is definitely a romp with more than a passing nod to the likes of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, but it's also a wonderfully well-characterised novel. The characters are archetypes but also have tremendous depth to them. Making the central hero a fat man in his sixties who gets winded way too easily and is physically incapable of engaging in combat is a brave move, making Adoulla the brains of the operation but also an irascible and stubborn fool on occasion. Raseed is lightning-fast with his sword and almost unbeatable in battle, but is riven by self-doubts and struggles with his faith. His humourless martinet routine is the butt of many jokes, but his religious conflict is an important part of his character which gives him depth when he finally realises the world is a messier place than his strict morals allow. However, arguably the most interesting characters are Dawoud and Litaz, former adventuring buddies of Team Adoulla who have now retired from monster-fighting to run their own business. They are reluctantly drawn back into Adoulla's adventures, allowing for a detailed examination of the lives of a middle-aged couple against a fantasy backdrop.
Throne of the Crescent Moon does this - mixing the conventional and unconventional, magical and mundane - throughout its length and it's this blending of knockabout fun with fleshed-out, realistic characters which gives the book much greater depth and longevity than just being an action novel (although Ahmed's action sequences are first-rate). Ahmed also achieves a tremendous depth of worldbuilding, making Dhamsawaat (which is basically Baghdad by way of Lankhamar) a fully-realised location so vivid you can smell the spices and hear the merchants hawking their wears.
If there are criticisms, it is the book's length: at 260 pages (in tradeback) the book rushes some aspects, especially towards the ending, and the Falcon Prince feels a bit too remote and off-stage a character for the sudden prominence he gains in the grand finale. However, plot synopses for the sequel suggests he plays a larger role in that volume, which will be welcome.
Throne of the Crescent Moon (****½) is a breath of fresh air, a fiendishly addictive novel which is over way too soon and will leave readers begging for more. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The sequel, The Thousand and One, is due for release later this year or in 2017.