This is part of a slightly Quixotic attempt to read and review all nine finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Award before the winner is announced at the end of October. As this is the first one, I suppose a bit of a heads up - I'll be approaching these books in a slightly templated fashion: plot summary, good stuff, not so good stuff, conclusion.
Throne of the Crescent Moon (2012) is an awards juggernaut. A Hugo finalist, a Nebula finalist, a Locus winner - and now a DGLA finalist. Saladin Ahmed's debut is hacking through prizes like a dervish through ghuls (see what I did there?).
Throne is a fast-paced sword & sorcery adventure. Doctor Adoulla Makslood is a ghul hunter on the verge of retirement. He's battled the forces of evil enough for several lifetimes, and he'd really like to settle down, eat a pastry, marry his ladyfriend and read books. Who wouldn't? Adoulla's sidekick is Raseed bas Raseed, a kickass young warrior who has pledged his life to fight evil. He is the brawn to Adoulla's brain. There's is an exaggerated Holmes and Watson relationship. Adoulla is wise, with infinite depths of experience to draw upon, as well as an inexhaustible network of useful friends. Raseed is fiercely principled, but also quite young. Adoulla's rather free-wheeling (and slightly jaded) path towards doing good perplexes Raseed, who still sees things in black and white.
Fortunately, like the good Watson, Raseed's also got an eye for the ladeez. In this case, he's served up a love interest in the form of Zamia, a young tribeswoman who can turn into a lion. Their paths cross when the rest of her band are devoured by mega-ghuls (like normal ghuls, but, er, more ghulish). It turns out that Adoulla isn't quite ready for retirement just yet. A sorcerer is using mega-ghuls to topple the (admittedly quite loathsome) Khalif from his throne. Adoulla's a bit of a political malcontent (he's not-so-secretly impressed by a completely different group of revolutionaries, led by the dashing Falcon Prince), but dark sorcery and mega-ghuls just aren't pretty.
That sounds fun!
And, you know what? It (mostly) is. Throne's got two, seemingly contradictory, things going for it. First, progressive fantasy fans love to cite Throne as a representative of a whole new outlook on non-Western epic fantasy and the herald of a new era of progressivismitude. Second, fantasy fans who only want "escapism" see it for what it is - monsters get walloped with swords and/or magically 'sploded. "Swashbuckling," quoth io9, and this is a book that swashes and buckles a-plenty. Starburst hit the nail on the head by praises Throne as a book that "comes from the school of entertaining swords and sorcery tales that don't have a point to prove" (the same review also notes that this is "a great way to waste time" - which isn't a pejorative, as they conclude with an 8/10 rating).
So... which is right? Are we looking at a book that's the new champion of the progressive? Or a brainless sword and sorcery tale?
In a way... both. In a similar argument to the one I made years ago for God's War. Taking a "non-traditional" (said with slightly sarcastic scare quotes, as this setting is only non-traditional in the contemporary post-Tolkien epic fantasy category and even then...) setting for granted is, in a way, far more effective than shoving it down your throat. Throne's not an analogue of medieval Europe. Deal with it. Move on. It isn't deliberately subversive as much as wonderfully ignorant of what it is "supposed" to be. That may be the most effective approach of all.
Arguably, the setting isn't even the genuinely inventive bit - as noted above, I think non-Western settings are only rare within a narrow slice of the category (although non-Western settings done well are practically unicorns). The bit that struck me as potentially new and unusual was the character of Doctor Adoulla.
In most epic fantasies, say, 98.5% of them, our hero would be Raseed. And, indeed, he steals his fair share of page time. Guess what? He's noble and conflicted and Zamia gives him funny feelings in his man-scimitar and eventually he learns that the world is in shades of gray and what's really important is [yawn]. We've read that before, a lot. He's our Watson, but as written by David Eddings. Adoulla's is our unicorn - an older protagonist, an experienced one, a smart one and his approach to adventuring is a new spin on the "why me?" we've read a thousand times before. Adoulla's a genuinely good soul, if an unconventional one. It is easier for the reader to empathise with his sacrifice of hard-earned creature comforts than Raseem's more abstracted (and slightly silly) conflicts.
Furthermore, Throne is trim. Granted, it is the first in a series with a mild cliffhanger and all, but it is a self-contained story that doesn't come in doorstop form. Everything you need is in this one compact package, and, if nothing else, Throne provides a case study that world building can happen without a dozen or more completely extraneous chapters.
Yeah. And here's where I kick it in the textual balls: this is a brainless read, and, ultimately, that's not actually very interesting. Adoulla's love of fine pastry aside, he wasn't all that easy to connect with - too much of his chutzpah and know-how came as 'understood', with a bag of tricks ready to go from his previous campaigns. Throne is the second-to-last module in the campaign. It is cool to watch mid-level characters use their new tricks, but it is also a bit alienating. It feels a lot like Adoulla's more exciting adventures already happened, and we're just watching him grind a little more experience before the Big Boss. (Granted, this is part of the sword and sorcery tradition: every Conan adventure, for example, was self-contained, just occasionally he was a little older and more jaded. Epic fantasy is more linear and progressive; sword and sorcery jumps around... But that still doesn't help my concerns that we've already missed out on the really fun stuff, as well as most of the character-building.)
And, while I'm being blunt, Throne has a rather strong resemblance to Dungeons & Dragons. We've got the classes, the powers, the "cast a spell and take a nap" magic system. There's nothing wrong with that in and of itself (see: Dragonlance and/or RA Salvatore's sales figures). Dancing around a familiar system allows the reader to work with archetypes and we get how the magic works, so Throne can save on infodumping and move on to some character building. Except... I'm not sure it ever does. (Unless the Zamia/Raseed 'romance' counts as such, but honestly, no.)
Throne's not short on action, but after a (very) slow start in which Adoulla does everything short of lick the streets (the city is awesome guys, we learn this a lot), we're sort of catapulted from one set-piece to another. The eventual showdown is a bit of a baffling moment, as characters we don't really know about collide with characters we don't really care about to achieve something we didn't actually know or care about until that very moment. That sounds harsher than it is, and, again this is sword and sorcery. There's hand-waving, explosions, swordplay, more explosions, a big reveal, certain death and then a dramatic turnaround. Add heaving bosoms, glinting blades and bared teeth and you've got every book and/or cover in the genre. Saladin Ahmed is talented enough at waving hands, clashing swords and blowing shit up that it keeps our attention - but underneath it all Throne is what it is: a great way to waste time.
So, make up your mind - is that a good thing or a bad thing?
A book doesn't need to cram in some sort of philosophical worthiness in order to have a higher meaning or greater value - one thing epic fantasy doesn't need is another compendium of Hallmarkian wisdom. And it could be that by showing that faux-historical Middle Eastern analogues are just as brainless as faux-historical Dark Ages European analogues, Throne of the Crescent Moon is doing the category a good turn. There are reddit/fantasy threads about "find me more books like this one", so, on the whole, I'm on board with this strategy.
That said, just because the brainlessness may also have a hand in progressing the genre... it doesn't make it any less brainless. And praising something as a great "waste of time" may work for a blockbuster summer film, but feels like the kiss of death for a book, where the reader's investing more than two hours in the project and deserves a little more of a payoff.
It is fantastic that we're now accepting familiar stories that are written in new places. Maybe the next step might be some new stories?
OH MY GOD TELL ME IF YOU LIKED THE BOOK OR NOT
Hmm. Yes, I did. Honestly, I'm more comfortable thinking of Throne of the Crescent Moon as some sort of Platonic Form of Fantasy (a bit like Sanderson). It is a lovely example of everything you can do in the field without actually pushing it. I can understand why it is on the DGLA shortlist, as it is a solid and timeless chunk of sword and sorcery that would (and will) be just as solid and timeless in 1936 or 2085.
It isn't the book's fault that I want more from it, but, I see Throne as a bit of a par performance. There are some epic fantasies on the shortlists that don't even work as good entertainment. Yet, fortunately, there are a few others that not only cover the bases, but also take it that mysterious step further...