So I was particularly interested to read Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed after I read Ahmed's essay on racism in Game of Thrones and, later, Razib Khan's review of the book. Honestly, I don't have a big argument with Khan's take on the book, though my opinion is not exactly the same. (Khan was nicer than I thought he'd be, actually, after his response to Ahmed's racism essay.)
Spoilers below, as always. That's just how we do things around here. Get used to it.
Anyway, the first point I want to make is the opposite of something Khan says. I felt like (and I saw this in some of the Amazon reviews for this book) not that Ahmed was trying to do too much in 273 pages (that's how many my edition has), but that he had too little to work with and it was stretched too thin. At least, the first part of the book felt this way. (Maybe this is what Khan means when he says the first 2/3 isn't all that engaging.) It almost felt like I was reading a short story that someone decided to expand to novel length by inserting long descriptions of things in the city of Dhamsawaat (where most of the action takes place).
Then, at the end, lots of stuff happened pretty fast. So I guess my first real issue is with pacing. My second issue is that there were too many convenient coincidences. Need information on an obscure historical name? Ask the madam at the local whorehouse, who not only remembers the name, but has a copy of the VERY SCROLL that could be translated to give more information. Need the scroll translated in a flash, even though it has multiple ciphers/encodings? One of our heroines has an old flame who has JUST THE SPELL to do it. I think what I'm trying to say is that the difficulties faced by the characters don't often seem all that, well, difficult. Sure, our characters are in danger at the end, and they have some tough decisions to make, but I never feared for their safety. I wasn't terribly emotionally engaged because of that.
Now, Razib Khan thinks the editors were too heavy-handed and made Ahmed trim the book down to a svelte <300 pages. If Khan's read about the book online and heard this, well, then I defer to him. But I think there ought to have been more editing. A couple of places, I'd see the same word used three times in as many lines (e.g. "learn" early in chapter 13). There was an over-reliance on ellipses when indicating pauses (they're supposed to mean omitted words, which is something different), a bit too much shrugging, sighing, and nodding (this is an easy trap to fall into, as I had to eliminate many instances of these actions in my own manuscript), a couple of places where there were too many adverbs (this was an irregular occurrence), and while I understand the desire to insert a religion into the society of Throne of the Crescent Moon, the word "God" is employed far too frequently (14 times on pages 168-169 alone). The characters frequently quote passages from their holy book at one another; these passages don't always seem to be part of a cohesive whole but instead seem designed to emphasize whatever points the characters are making at the time (though if the document was long enough, you could get some contradictory and downright weird stuff...you can easily do that with the Bible, for example). Oh yeah, and internal monologue in italics has always irritated me. It's on pretty much every page, here.
I guess I'd like to see more copy editing, whereas the type of editing Khan's talking about is more of a substantive thing. If there was a heavy-handed substantive editor, then I too hope he/she backs off in the second volume.
So what did I like about the book? Well, it was definitely a change to see the younger characters taking a backburner to the older ones. The main character, Adoulla, is over sixty. He's fat and bald (at least according to the cover art) and he grunts and farts and eats a lot and he wants to retire from ghul hunting. He's not dashingly handsome, he tires easily when fighting ghuls, he's opinionated, and sometimes he says things that hurt people's feelings. I also like that a lot of the description we get about Adoulla is not of the infodumping variety (he does infodump about Dhamsawaat sometimes, though).
The setting is non-pseudo-European, which is also nice for a change. I've been seeing more of this in fantasy lately, and I'm glad for that (I could put the obligatory list here of authors who are doing this: N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Howard Andrew Jones, maybe David Anthony Durham). And in the end, the man who ends up sitting on the title object does something which is not very nice (OK, he drinks the blood of the young prince after someone else cuts the boy) to gain power. Adoulla has to decide whether to reveal this to others or not, and in the end, he decides to keep it quiet. So it's not all neat and tidy and morally right. (That's a good thing.)
I felt like the book did have and ending, though. I had heard this was the first volume of a series, and that appears to be the case based on the things I've read online, but I was kind of surprised that that was true as I felt the ending was pretty firm. What I guess I'm trying to say is that this novel could work as a standalone. It's short, and if you don't want to commit much time, or commit to reading all the volumes of a series, those are factors that might recommend this book to you. (I'm honestly not sure why Razib Khan says he doesn't have time to read the sequels but he does have time to read and recommend Brandon Sanderson, whose The Way of Kings is easily three times as long...)
I wasn't bothered by the lack of female presence overmuch. This was really Adoulla's book. Litaz and Zamia (and to a lesser extent, Miri) do some things to move the plot forward. Litaz is maybe a little more fleshed out that Dawoud, but I feel like we know about the same amount about Zamia and Raseed. So it's not that female characters are pushed to the side, but that none of Adoulla's companions are as well-developed as he is. At least, that's my take on the whole thing.
I think the political situation (the mysterious Falcon Prince is a Robin Hood type who sets himself up against the Khalif, who is a rather unsympathetic individual whom many want to overthrow) is an interesting backdrop. I'll admit, I wasn't sure about the Falcon Prince's intentions for much of the book, and I liked that I was kept guessing and couldn't predict what he would do. I'm not saying I would've done the politics the same way, as the Khalif is especially one-dimensional and trope-ish, but I liked that by the end of the book, this storyline had been merged with the ghul hunters' storyline. I'm not saying it was expertly handled, but the intention was there.
As for the other characters, Litaz and Dawoud are also old -- in fact, they have retired from ghul hunting. She's an alchemist (Ahmed spells it differently but I'm not going to) and he's a sorcerer. But they're willing to help out their friend Adoulla one last time, because of the scope of the threat. Raseed is one of the two main young characters; he's a dervish, which in this book is a sort of holy order where the devotees eschew a lot of worldly comforts and strive to live upstanding, moral lives while also training in fighting. Raseed is pretty much a badass, overcoming in seconds a drug that would've knocked someone else out for an hour, etc. There's also Zamia, a tribeswoman (girl, really) Raseed and Adoulla encounter one one of their ghul-slaying missions. There's a budding romance between Raseed and Zamia, and it's awkward and not entirely believable. The romance between Adoulla and Miri, the madam with the scroll, also seems forced. It's entirely possible that their relationship had been developing for decades before this book, but over those decades, they never married (Adoulla's prohibited by his order from doing so). So when Adoulla is suddenly willing to give it all up at the end, I'm still left wondering "why now?" After all those years? And this is especially confusing because Adoulla is so much more well-developed as a character than Raseed and Zamia, who don't share his depth and breadth of life experience. We should understand his motivations better.
So, there have been a lot of Amazon reviewers (and others) who say that Ahmed is giving a nod to sword and sorcery. And to be honest, I did get this feel a lot of the time as I was reading. But other times, I felt like I was reading a more traditional fantasy. I couldn't decide what kind of book it was supposed to be, I guess. I think I'd have preferred a book which was firmly in one camp or the other, though. (Sorry no examples here, it's more of a change in flow from one passage to the next and sometimes it took me awhile to figure out what was bothering me about the prose.)
One Amazon reviewer mentioned that Ahmed is not afraid to kill off characters, and that is true, but the person's comparison to George R.R. Martin is probably not valid -- Ahmed doesn't kill off his main characters, only side characters (a palace guard, a teahouse proprietor, a prince whose existence we've only known of for a couple of pages). Sure, there's blood and violence, but don't expect any Eddard Stark beheading moments here. Adoulla makes it out alive.
Wow, this was not as positive as I thought it would be. And even the things I liked, were just about all mentioned by Amazon reviewers (who are actually a decent bunch, so I probably won't do a "reviewing the reviewers" post). Will I read the sequel, though? Sure. (I got the hardcover at a pretty low price from the Science Fiction Book Club -- as long as we're being honest.) This is Ahmed's first full-length novel, and hopefully since he's gotten a lot of press and a decent (for fantasy) sales rank on Amazon, he'll be given a little freer rein next time.