Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Good Old-Fashioned Adventure

Saladin Ahmed; Throne of the Crescent Moon (DAW Books; February 2012; ISBN 978-0-7564-0711-7; cover art by Jason Chan).

Some months ago (in the Twitterverse), I came across Saladin Ahmed talking up his forthcoming fantasy novel. The name rang a bell, it turned out that I had seen his name in the PodCastle episode lineup. I looked at the description of the book and was immediately interested: the main character and the setting went against most of the fantasy that I find same old-same old and have given up. An older (tired) fighter, part-magician, part-detective (at least from those early descriptions) in a ancient Middle-Eastern style setting. Sinbad! Ray Harryhausen! Clark Ashton Smith!

I ordered the book. And waited.

In the meanwhile, I struck up an online conversation with Saladin Ahmed (mostly reading his postings). And I looked for his short stories, reading, in fairly rapid succession: Mister Hadj's Sunset Ride; Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela; The Faithful Soldier, Prompted; and especially: Judgment of Swords and Souls and Where Virtue Lives, both set in the universe of the forthcoming novel.

(The first story set in the universe of the novelfeatures a character that I really hope appears in another book in the series, as I want, really want, one of the main character's from the second story—who is also a main character in the book—to encounter her.)

What was not to like? Cowboy stories? With supernatural elements? And fish out of water? Young girls going against the norms (trying to get The Young Lady to read that one)? Ghuls?

When is that dang book coming out?

More time passed. I learned that Saladin and another new author I was following (Myke Cole) were both going to be appearing at an event in New York City. I made plans to take time off and see them. Oddly enough, both books came within a few days of each other, right before the event. Armed with the books, I went to the event, met both authors (charming folks, really, despite what you may have heard...) and settled in to read the new books.

(Administrative note: Myke's book arrived first. I started to read it first. But then it got knocked off the tracks by a family matter and I'm just now getting back into it. Soon, Myke, soon!)

On to the book! Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last of the ghul hunters is getting on in years. There's nobody to carry on his work (Raseed bas Raseed is is assistant, but lacks the spark needed to go from a fighter to somebody who can magically destroy a ghul) and as his age has crept up and the number of other ghul hunters crept down...the number of ghuls seems to be creeping up.

While tracking what turns out to be a particularly nasty band of ghuls, they encounter Zamia Badawi, the sole surviving member of her clan or band (named Protector of the Band, she failed at that task and that haunts her). She manages to save their hides and the three team up. Something is stirring. Something that will need additional resources to put down. They return to the city, Dhamsawaat (more later) and enlist the aid of two of the Doctor's oldest friends and longest-serving campaigners, Dawoud and his wife Litaz.

What first appears to be a straightforward dungeon crawl and fight with a master of the ghuls, turns into a nightmare when the Doctor's sanctuary, his house, is invaded by Mouw Awa. Mouw Awa is a power demon and a very creepy critter, one of Ahmed's best creations in this work (he reminds me of something you find in a Jack Vance tale, or maybe one of A.E. van Vogt's dream-inspired works). The heat is turned up and the band must face an even graver task then they first planned for.

Toss in an assortment of other character's, the corrupt Khalif and his idealistic son, the Robin Hood-esque Falcon Prince, the Doctor's long-time flame, Miri, and you've got a great first entry.

The book is not overlong, a strength in my opinion. Ahmed did not feel the need to make a doorstopper. And, while it is part of a trilogy it is complete. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. A satisfying end. You can read the book and know you have read the whole story. Back in your mind, you'll know the campaign is only starting and there will be more tales, but you have a complete meal here.

The best parts of the book for me, other than the story and the action (which felt like a very fun and satisfying RPG adventure to me) were the main characters: Doctor Adoulla Makhslood and his long-time friends Dawoud and Litaz as a triad, Raseed and Zamia as a pair and the city itself, Dhamsawaat as a solo.

The Doctor, Dawoud and Litaz have a history. A very long and complicated history. And they are written in such a way, they are familiar with each others strengths and weaknesses, their jokes and habits. You can find references to many a previous adventure (and one hopes that at some point some of these adventures are told!). It is a wonderful friendship.

Raseed and Zamia are the relative newcomers. While Raseed has been working for the Doctor, he seems somewhat insular. He is attracted to Zamia, and vice versa, so they draw each other out. The relationship is new, makes mistakes (I yelled at Raseed more than once) and ends at a forked road. But either fork can take the story one with the subsequent books.

Dhamsawaat is definitely a character. As with Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, any number of planets or cities in the works of Jack Vance, Clifford D. Simak's rural settings, the U.S.S. Enterprise, a RPG setting such as Arkham or Jakalla or even a movie set such as the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, it is a character. Ahmed does a fantastic job of depicting the smells and scents (good and bad), the food, the crowds, the streets, the rhythm and flow of life there. I can't wait to visit it again (who is doing the F-RPG module?).

A highly recommended first novel. When is the second coming out?

Addendum: Google around for interviews, but this one is a good place to start.

1 comment:

Paul Weimer said...

I'd love for a RPG module supplement to describe Dhamsawaat. I'd snap that up in a heartbeat.

I bet I could do something small based on the DFRPG rules for city construction. Hmmm...