In spite of its Middle East-inspired setting, Throne of the Crescent Moon is, in large part, a derivative slog, full of cookie-cutter characters, mediocre writing, and wooden dialogue.
Throne takes place in the comparatively exotic setting of a world with a distinctly Arabian Nights sensibility, one which critics have praised as a breath of fresh air from fantasy’s Eurocentric bias. Much of the action takes place around Dhamsawaat, a great metropolis in the desert (and a stand-in for Baghdad, complete with an inner Round City), ruled by a Kalif and filled with all manner of magi, dervishes, alchemists, spellcasters and cocky prince-thieves. The surrounding lands contain roving bands of nomadic Badawi tribesmen, ghuls, djens and other monsters.
The worldbuilding is probably the best part of the book, despite the fact that what Ahmed has done here isn’t so much as create a Middle-Eastern-inspired fantasy world as he has lifted elements out of the Arabian Nights and placed them in his setting without much in the way of innovative modification. Although that is not in itself a bad thing, it does seem like Ahmed is counting on the intrinsically exotic nature of Arabian myth to sell their appeal to Western audiences, without the need for Ahmed to do too much legwork.
Once we move past the worldbuilding, however, we come face to face with a depressingly by-the-numbers book, overflowing with derivative plot elements, themes, and tropes.
We have the plot, which is pretty much an unreconstructed plot by an evil, power-hungry mastermind named Orshado (or shadow, geddit?) to obtain infinite power using a bunch of macguffin fantasy artifacts. But Orshado is one of those villains that isn’t a character – he’s solely there as a plot element to drive the main conflict. The man doesn’t even talk once, leaving his risibly evil hench-jackal Mouw Awa to do all the yapping for him. And Mouw Awa isn’t all that much of a talker either – his utterances are just variations on the “I’ll destroy you” and “gah, foiled again!” exclamations of corny, mustache-twirling villainy.
No, Thrones is a novel more interested in spending energy on developing its heroes. We have the old ghul-hunter Adoulla, his pious protege Raseed, the revenge-driven tribeswoman Zamia, and the loving alchemist-magus couple Litaz and Dawoud. However, these characters are largely one-note archetypes, written to follow well-trodden character arcs, tiresome in their plodding predictability.
Of all these, Adoulla, our main protagonist, is the most compelling because of his old-man irreverence, and his tendency to call out on the stupidities of his fellows. Litaz and Dawoud are your obligatory loyal sidekicks, there to provide our heroes with much needed logistical (by which I mean plot armour) support. And then there’s Raseed and Zamia. Raseed is the holy warrior dervish, with his tiresome piousness and moral inflexibility, who must learn to take it a little easier in life. Zamia is the tribeswoman who searches for vengeance for her slain tribe and must learn to also take it a little easier on herself. Their respective character arcs are tiresome because they are so predictably derivative. Of course, Ahmed has them fall in love, too, and the scenes of Raseed being overprotective of Zamia, or of them trying to come to terms with their feelings while struggling against their piety/desire for revenge, are painfully obtuse and cringeworthy.
Ahmed is not interested in being subtle about these arcs. Every time the narrative jumps to Raseed’s point of view, he’ll be worrying that his actions do not befit a pious dervish of his Order, or attempting to banish his impure thoughts about Zamia. Every time Zamia becomes the POV character, she’ll mope about how weak she is and how she failed her village. Every time Adoulla is featured, it’ll be about how he’s too old for this shit. And these one-note internal struggles take up a large portion of the book, ensuring that the actual plot moves at a snail’s pace, only getting good at the last twenty pages or so.
One last thing about these characters: they are pious almost to a man (and woman), quoting their scriptures perfectly from memory at semi-opportune moments, asking for God’s benediction at every turn, or calling upon his ministering angels in times. couching everything in God’s design. The central plot conflict is couched as a battle between the Merciful God of the books and the forces of the Traitorous Angel, which is of course a naked reference to the Abrahamic religions in the real world. As such, morality is conflated with piety, but not in the sense of ascetic piety, but the piety of attributing all things to the God of this fantasy realm. Ahmed doesn’t appear to interrogate this piety very much, however, which is okay, sure, in that he is depicting a fantasy world in which religious belief is taken seriously (and may even be ontologically “real”), but to a secular reader, that uncritical religiosity can be off-putting.
But even with all that, I can still enjoy a simplistic, derivative sword-and-sorcery novel – such books are, after all, adventures first, literature second. Unfortunately, Ahmed is guilty of a number of cardinal sins of writing – his overuse of adverbs to describe almost every action and his rampant quoting being two. The prose in Thrones is perfunctory and functional, without subtlety or style, only interested in telling, not showing, what exactly the characters are feeling or doing at any moment.
And the dialogue! A lot of it is tone-deaf or just plain badly written. Mouw Awa’s overly-exposition-laden mutterings and his misuse of ‘doth’ and ‘thou’, the laughable attempts at rendering low-brow speech patterns with the Falcon Prince’s men, Raseed’s lamely pious babble, Adoulla’s banter with his old friends – much of it is in the same vein as the rest of his prose – functional, interested in the unsubtle telegraphing of the author’s point, without any serious attempt at naturalism. Fantasy is no stranger to stilted dialogue a la Lord of the Rings, but Ahmed is no Tolkien, who at least could instil poetry into his characters’ pompous speeches. Bad dialogue takes away from the characters and makes them seem even more like the shoddy, functional stereotypes that they are.
Throne is one of those books in which my opinion appears to diverge sharply from the critical consensus. This book has garnered Hugo and Nebula nominations and won the Locus Award for best first novel. That’s no mean feat. I’m not sure what accounts for this divergence of views. But, from where I stand, Throne doesn’t really seem of the calibre I would expect of a book that has garnered such acclaim. It’s not a bad book, for sure. If you can look past its stylistic faults and its by-the-numbers attempts at characterization, it’s an entertaining read that ramps up to a genuinely exciting conclusion; one that wraps up the plot in a satisfying way, but opens up new ground for the sequels in the trilogy. But as for me, the book’s flaws overshadow its pleasures. There are too many better books and series out there. And since the book does do the reader the favour of not ending on a cliffhanger, I will probably not be reading the subsequent books in this series.
I give this book: 2.5 out of 5 Kem Pyramids