Friday, April 26, 2013

Here's Sand in Your Tropes!

Throne of the Crescent Moon
Saladin Ahmed
Penguin, 2012
ISBN 0756407117

The standard fantasy has a medieval setting. This standard is so pervasive that Orson Scott Card writes that he wasn't able to sell a science fiction story to a science fiction publisher because it started in a medieval setting.

That's not the worst of it, though. The worst of it is that standard fantasy has a Eurocentric medieval setting. Even when authors go to great pains to draw maps of non-existent places where the story takes place, it remains essentially Europe, somewhere between a thousand and five hundred years ago.

For me any change in that is welcome, so I knew I was going to enjoy Ahmed's story as soon as I started reading. OK, so it's the obligatory medieval setting, with powerful rulers and powerful magic users and powerful fighters. You can practically hear the D and D dice roll, though I don't mean it in disrespect. It's just so very standard, it requires no explanation, which is partly why authors write this way.

Adoulla and his loyal assistant Raseed set out to deal with some ghuls that reportedly killed most of a family. They meet up with Zamia, a desert warrior who can shapeshift into a powerful lion. As they compare notes, they realize that they are up against the most powerful evil wizard they had ever encountered. Of course, the wizard knows where they live...

What set this story apart for me was that Ahmed had set it in a fantasy Muslim kingdom. The language and setting were all beautifully done, and required no effort on my part to immerse myself into this world. It's vaguely reminiscent of A Thousand and One Nights, which provides an element of familiarity for readers from the West.

But Ahmed doesn't simply mine Sheherezade's stories. I found his story full of fresh new ideas, new to me, certainly, but also new to the genre. This is a well written book that ought to set a standard for what authors try to write in the future. It's got fighting and loving and magic and horrible creatures, if you're into excitement. And it has some great characters, like Adoulla, the crude wizard, or Zamia, the shape shifting desert woman. Though in places the story reads a bit like a Dungeons and Dragons adventure module, the writing is so good that even those of us familiar with that game should be willing to overlook it.

Throne of the Crescent Moon was the fourth of the 2013 Hugo nominees that I read. I highly recommend it.

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