Throne of the Crescent Moon
2012 • 288 pages • DAW Books
Where is the God in fantasy?
There are speculative fiction novels that deal with faith and spirituality—while I haven’t read it yet, I am told that Mary Russell’s The Sparrow touches on it. But I don’t mean faith and spirituality as a core theme of a text; I mean faith and spirituality as both worldbuilding and character building. In my experience, fantasy worldbuilding is often predicated on the existence of gods or goddesses. There is no question that the gods exist. Their decisions make be questioned or influenced or what have you, but they made the world, they exist, and that is that. Depictions of faith and religious practice tends to be dramatically diverse—the dwarves worship their god, and the elves theirs—
It’s something I’ve never really thought about. My only religious training as a kid was pointedly not being actively Catholic with no viable option presented, so religion as a whole was never on my radar. (My mother once panicked before a family funeral and tried to make me learn the Lord’s Prayer. I was what, eighteen? Nineteen? It did not take.) Since organized religion has never played a role in my life, I’ve never wondered what kind of role it can play in secondary worldbuilding.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is not (largely) about its characters’ faiths and belief (or lack thereof) in God. It’s actually a swashbuckling adventure story full of revenge, like a slightly darker and more emotionally mature version of The Princess Bride (film version; I will read the novel at some point, I swear!). But this is a world were faith is an open and integral thing to both private and public life. Yes, magic works, but few know exactly why; it’s a natural system that many believe comes from God and many don’t. Doctor Adoulla Makhslood and the Raseed both believe deeply in God, thus their chosen professions, but they differ on the severity of their lifestyle. The young, so full of vim, vigor, and zeal, believe more fervently than their mentors, who have seen much more of life than they have. Even the Falcon Prince, a Robin Hood-style thief, downplays the glories of magic by pointing out the cruel things that God allows to happen. This novel gets a lot of attention simply because it’s based on Middle Eastern history and not European history, but that doesn’t just mean that the setting is new and refreshing. (Although every passing reference to similarly fantasized versions of other cultures that don’t get nearly as much play in mainstream fantasy makes me want to scream for a world tour, but that’s neither here nor there.) It also means that the viewpoint is new and refreshing, too.
Which sounds odd to say, given that the ensemble that ultimately comes together is made up of a majority of elderly people. But I really adore that. Adoulla is on what he hopes is his last adventure, given that he’s started to hope monsters will kill him. His beloved friends Dawoud and Litaz, immigrants from the Soo Republic to the city of Dhamsawaat, have begun to think about returning to the Republic before Dawoud is no longer well enough to travel. (Perhaps the most wonderful of all the worldbuilding details is that Dawoud and Litaz, coming from different sides of the Soo Republic, are kind of star-crossed. They’re adorable.) Ahmed hops from perspective to perspective in chapters—which leads to the climax being told three different ways, which actually works—and we get to see their different opinions on life as they age. It offers a depth to the romp that I so seldom see in other fun, swashbuckling fantasy novels. I have long been a sucker for aging heroes—I saw Live Free or Die Hard first, y’all—and Throne of the Crescent Moon delivers.
Plus, Throne of the Crescent Moon is, truly, urban fantasy—fantasy concerned with and focused on urban life. (I have a lot of feelings about the term “urban fantasy.” I’m getting better at letting semantics be bygones, There’s politicking—Litaz, formerly a noblewoman, is fantastic at that—and poverty, teahouses and ramshackle private homes, bureaucracy and petty crime. It’s so well-drawn that it feels almost obvious that Adoulla’s greatest motivation, having never been able to marry the woman he loves due to his profession, is saving and protecting the city of Dhamsawaat. It’s what leads to his most human moments, both small—his constant desire to sit quietly in a civilized teahouse—and large—his decision at the end of the novel to conceal something huge, solely because it benefits the city.
What makes this novel so impressive is how it fits so neatly into the fantasy tradition that has come before while also highlighting what the genre—what all speculative fiction—needs to move forward: broader horizons, in both scope and history. How wonderful.
I rented this book from the public library.