Friday, February 10, 2012

Of Pistachios and Cardamom Tea: Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon


Almond pastries.

Cardamom tea.

Maybe it was because I was reading Saladin Ahmed's debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, while I was hungry, but these images of food kept jumping off the pages at me as I read.  And the more I read, the more impressed I was with the way Ahmed uses these concentrated, intensely sensory images to immerse the reader in the Middle-Eastern-like world of the novel.  Because of his nimbleness and deftness with language, Ahmed is able to tell a thrilling story of adventure and political intrigue that would take many fantasy authors over 600 pages, in less than half of that space, all without compromising his characters or his story.

As Ahmed explained here earlier this week, Throne of the Crescent Moon tells the story of Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, a ghul hunter; Raseed bas Raseed, a holy warrior; and Zamia Banu Laith Badawi, a young woman with special powers who is looking to avenge her tribe.  The narrative shifts back and forth among their perspectives (and several others), painting characters who both meet our expectations and subvert them in new and creative ways.  I found Adoulla to be particularly intriguing--although old and on the verge of retiring, he is more than just mentor to Raseed and Zamia.  He is the ghul hunter, and he plays the role of the hero much more than other, similar characters such as Obi-Wan and Gandalf.  This exploration of the question of what happens to heroes as they grow old is one of the most interesting parts of Ahmed's novel, and in addition to the setting, this thematization of the consequences of aging heroes is one of the more original parts of the narrative.

I was also impressed with how Ahmed opened the novel.  I'm used to what Farah Mendlesohn calls the "portal-quest" structure of many fantasy novels, particularly those that fall in the epic fantasy category.  The hero (and reader) starts close to home, in a comfortable setting; once the familiarity of this situation is established, the hero can embark on his or her adventures, bringing the reader along for the ride.  And while Throne of the Crescent Moon does fit into this category fairly well, the opening does not.  The opening is dark and unsettling and uncomfortable, and while Ahmed doesn't maintain this darkness throughout the narrative (as someone like Joe Abercrombie might, for example), he brings it back in the occasional flash, reminding readers what's at stake.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is the first book in a series (The Crescent Moon Kingdoms), and while I realize that it's a bit early to be thinking about the next book in the series, I'm going to do it anyways.  In addition to providing the reader with specific details about food and smells, Ahmed creates the setting of his novel by infusing the narrative with the name of God.  The novel opens with a guardsman begging the beneficent God for death; many of the characters pray to God amidst their other thoughts, and discussions of holiness and piety are important for the development of one of the main characters.  For the most part, however, religion and God are primarily used as part of the setting, creating a certain atmosphere and invoking an Islamic/Middle-Eastern setting; I would be interested in seeing Ahmed more directly engage with the relationship between faith and fantasy in future books in the series.  I saw hints of this near the end of Throne of the Crescent Moon, particularly in Adoulla's discussions with the Falcon Prince, and I think it would be fascinating to see these ideas developed even further in later novels in the series.

Regardless of what Ahmed does in future novels, however, Throne of the Crescent Moon is definitely a story that will stay with me.  Like Proust's famous madelines, Ahmed's pistachios will undoubtedly bring the story of Adoulla, Raseed, and Zamia to my mind for many months to come, and it will certainly be a welcome memory.