When I uploaded a cover for the currently reading post for this book, I chose the more serious looking one a bit further in this review. After having read Throne Of The Crescent Moon, the debut of Michigan born Saladin Ahmed, I have to say the cover on the left of this paragraph is more suiting. This book has won the Locus FN in 2013, and is the first in a trilogy. It feels like Young Adult to me, and the Arabian Nights setting feels mainly as window-dressing for what is a simple, typical fantasy adventure. That’s a bit of a shame, because I had my senses set on a different book, wanting to enjoy the magic of being transported to an unknown, original, challenging other world.
What we get instead is something we already know: a world that used to be populated by vast, magical armies, but in which today hardly anybody knows the skill to summon or fight them anymore – except for one of the protagonists and the main adversary, of course. There’s also a new, cruel and inapt ruler (called a Khalif here, since, well, the book has this Middle-Eastern vibe going on). Everything happens in typical big, crowded capital, and a few nondescript adjacent places in an adjacent desert. The villain has been able to tap Ancient forces, set on conquering the throne. Yet this Khalif nor this villain come across as a real threat, since we don’t get know them – except for 3 short torture scenes with the villain that feature as prologues to each of the 3 parts. It’s also pretty clear early on that our heroes will just beat them, without suffering losses themselves, since it’s simply that kind of book. As a result, you read on just to see how, but I never felt invested. I thought of abandoning the book multiple times, but read on, since it’s a rather short and easy, and nothing really annoyed me.
Some reviews praise the characters, and the fact that they are flawed. Indeed, the three main characters aren’t really flat nor perfect, we do get to know them, but they’re pretty much reduced to one trait each:
the ghoul hunter is old and tired, his young dervish apprentice is pious and in conflict about the obvious moral complexity of life, and the tribal girl that can shape shift into a lioness mourns her slaughtered family. Raseed, the dervish, is also, coincidentally, one of the best fighters alive. He’s young, but kicks ass easily.
The creature didn’t feel pain, and one-clawed it could still have easily killed most men. But Raseed was not most men. (…) He waited for an opening and found it when the thing lunged at him with its snapping jaws. Raseed shifted, brought his sword up, brought it down. The ghul’s head flopped from its shoulders.
If that’s the best swashbuckling of 2012, as the io9.com quote states on the back, well, my…
This book has absolutely no moral or emotional complexity whatsoever. It’s good vs. evil. The characters do what they need to do, and it’s always clear what they need to do. Found an ancient scroll? Go to the scroll translator! Got a wound? Go to the healing magus! Need to tell a lie to save the retreat of a dubious character that actually is a Robin Hood? Lie! He went left, not right! As a reader, I never thought “what would I do?”
3 other things that could have been worked on:
Bland, unremarkable language.
A clamor went up from the crowd. Some of it was outraged muttering. But a good number of folk were clearly emboldened by the Prince’s regicidal words, and they made a lot of noise.
Tribesmen’s speech had always sounded to Adoulla like rocks talking. This rough-looking girl sounded like a grating rain of pebbles.
Nice try for a simile, but come on, a girl sounding “like a grating rain of pebbles”? Are we talking human speech here?
Repetitiveness. After a few pages we get it: Adoulla feels old, he likes cardamon tea (lest you forget the setting is Middle Eastern), the ghouls turn into maggots and earth if they die, Zamia is a savage, et cetera, etc. And oh, the word “God” is mentioned on about every of the 367 pages.
And finally: the magic system! There isn’t any. Adoulla needs to kill a ghoul? He just utters a random quote from a religious text, or he trows a vial with some magic potion at it. Or both. The vials are in his satchel. It’s just full of the stuff. Near the end of the book, not so much, but that’s no problem:
He dashed forward. His satchel had held little when he’d saved it from his burning townhouse. But it held what he needed now. He withdrew a small tortoise shell and shook it above his head, three sapphires sealed inside making a rattling sound. “Beneficent God is the Last Breath in our Lungs!” he shouted.
Some other amusing stuff:
A couple of pages features cardboard religious zealots as well, called “The Humble Students” – a clear reference to the Taliban. They don’t like prostitutes. Hardly surprising, for a story “set in a well-detailed and historically thick culture”, according to the quote of RT Book Reviews that’s reprinted among other praise on the first pages of my pocket edition.
At a certain point in the story the shape shifting girl actually minds big time that she is healed by a magus! Talk about superstition! Her powers were given by God. Principles are principles, but once the magus says – without any other explanation afterwards – “God gave me my gifts. I draw my power, girl, from my own lifeblood. From the days that I have left in this world.” it’s okay all of a sudden. These powers involve a “slight glow of green” coming from the magus’ hands when he does his healing trick, eyes closed, obviously.
“Skin ghuls” are “monsters made by twisting a living man’s soul inside out.” How does that happen, twisting a soul inside out?
If you still feel the need to read this book and make up your own mind about it, by all means, do. It’s a quick read, it’s mildly entertaining and time’s cheap. But maybe just watch one of the sequels to The Scorpion King instead: at least your expectations won’t be off for that.