Friday, September 18, 2015

Chicago Nerds: Throne of the Crescent Moon

For the last meeting of the Chicago Nerd's book club, we discussed Saladin Ahmed's "Throne of the Crescent Moon" (2012), a sword-and-sorcery tale set in a fantasy version of the Islamic Golden Age.

The novel follows Doctor Adoulla Makhslood and his companions as they battle a supernatural threat. Adulla is a nearly-retired "ghul hunter"; ghuls are sort of golem-y zombie things raised by evil magicians. Joining him are a sword-wielding dervish, a shape-changer, and an eldery alchemist/mage couple.

We had a fun discussion, with a lot of comparison to other fantasy works in the same vein, some critiques of tropey-ness, discussion of "gaming dynamics" for lack of a better term, and a really great list of books for next time. There may be SPOILERS BELOW:

The primary critique we had of the book was that, setting notwithstanding, the plot and characterization were quite formulaic. "Generic people doing generic things on some kind of quest," as Janet put it, and we also talked about the serial macguffin-gathering that takes up quite a few chapters as a way to split the characters up and give them some screen-time. I kept thinking of every episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" where they have to take time-out from the main plot in order to go get magical supplies, books, weapons, etc., because otherwise the plot would wrap up in five minutes.

There's definitely some pacing issues here--fun swashbuckling action scenes, but then long, slow sections that sorta-kinda develop the characters. The middle half or so of this is a wee bit of a slog.

But not unbearably so! And there was lots to like about this, for sure. Indeed, while we criticized the over-used tropes when the novel slowed down, it's the very formula that makes the snappier parts work so well: we can quickly grasp the way the five characters work--it's very classic fantasy/gaming stuff--and then the fun new bits (magic, ghuls, action sequences) are easy to get our heads around and very fun.

Just to get this out of the way here, class-wise it looks like we've got:
  • Warrior Monk/Druid type (very strong against ghuls, heavily item-based, doesn't use melee weapons)
  • Blademaster (very high AGI & DEX, weak to SHAME)
  •  Shapeshifter/Berserker (extremely high DMG, bonus against lycans, weak to FEELINGS)
  • Priest/Mage (healing, some offensive capabilities. Mana pool draws on HP).
  • Alchemist (debuffs, crowd control, high CHAR/INT)
Yeah that looks about right.

While the "party selection", as it were, has that classic kind of RPG spread, some aspects of the book reminded us very specifically of Bioware-type mechanics. In quite a few scenes, characters are faced with choices remniscent of those good/bad, paragon/renegade-type events. We spent an extended discussion analyzing that dynamic, with much reference to the "Mass Effect" games, and the more ambiguous morality-trees of  "Dragon Age". "Bioshock" choice mechanics got pulled in as well.
Lot of this going on.
All that aside, obviously a big discussion point with this book is the setting. Rather than using the standard pseudo-medieval, pseudo-European backdrop (PMPE), the fairly lightly-embroidered Caliphate setting was a nice change of pace and cultural references. I was particularly intrigued by the explicit inclusion of "God", as so many fantasies want to have a Christian church analogue but are scared to actually say the G-word. Ahmed does duck around theology quite a bit--while there are references to "scripture", and there are certainly a few different holy orders, we don't get much of a look at the religion here. Nonetheless, having God, angels, "The Treacherous Angel", and some hazy Maybe-Evil Elder-Gods in the backstory and magic system worked well. Newcomer Serge also brought up some possible parallels to the Iranian revolution.

We wound up talking for a bit about the theme of non-Western/Eurocentric fantasy, which seemed to have been making a big impact on the scene in recent years, including works like:
  • "Alif the Unseen" (2012) by G. Willow Wilson
  • "The Golem & the Jinni" (2013) by Helene Wecker
  • "The Killing Moon" (2012) by N.K. Jemisin
And honestly there's lots more we could have talked about--Sofia Samatar's "Stranger in Olondria" (2013, discussed by Think Galactic earlier this year) and the Chicago-Nerd-discussed "City of Stairs" (2014) by Robert Jackson Bennett, for starters.

We also compared it to a wide range of other fantasy, particularly of the light, swash-buckling type. I thought of Terry Brooks a bit actually, whose stuff I haven't read in ages; Anne brought up the "Tiger and Del" series by Jennifer Roberson. Adoulla's love for the city of Dhamsawaat, the old cynical/new rule-bound cop dynamic he has with Raseed, and the whole "I'm too old for this shit but doing it anyway" vibe reminded me of Sam Vimes from Pratchett's "Discworld" books.

Formulaic/pacing issues aside, we liked the overall style of the book--as Kevin pointed out, it's good writing sentence by sentence, which one doesn't always see. We were intrigued by the horrific interjected guard-being-tortured-magic bits, which upped the stakes but seemed a bit divorced from the tone elsewhere.

While this book could have been leaner still, we still liked that it's not a giant doorstopper fantasy, victim of the dreaded genre bloat. Erin had an interesting comment about release timing re: sequels, though, which is that this is the kind of book that would benefit from quick sequel publishing--she also had some counter-comparisons from Joe Abercrombie's YA series, which use a few different techniques to make sequeling easier on the reader. A few of us didn't find it quite exciting/memorable enough to really want to go grab the sequel years later, whereas if they all came out in a reasonably short span of time we might be more likely to.

Probably for the best it was Adoulla
and not the morally-uncompromising
Raseed that caught that little
bit of information.
We're not sure exactly where a sequel would pick up--perhaps Raseed & Zamia later on, or perhaps just somewhere else in this world entirely. We were a bit nonplussed by the anti-twist of the Falcon Prince not being the Big Bad, but rather just this Orshado guy coming in, being evil, promptly getting beheaded (told ya there were spoilers), which rather wraps things up. We did appreciate the morally ambiguous ending, with the Falcon Prince going with "Plan B: drink the little kid-blood" in return for...socialism powers? And Adoulla keeping his mouth shut about it to prevent civil war? Put me in mind of Veidt's "moral checkmate" at the end of Moore & Gibbons' "Watchmen" (1987). Good stuff.

A good discussion! After which, we had a really tight vote for October. All the nominations sounded great:
  • "Going Postal" (2004) by Terry Pratchett
  • "Cloud Atlas" (2004) by David Mitchell (who's doing a talk in Chicago in November)
  • "Annihilation" (2014) by Jeff VanderMeer (winner of the Nebula Award, and also the Jake-Makes-Jazz-Hands Award)
  • "Nimona" (2012) by Noelle Stevenson (graphic novel, originally a web comic: you can read the first bits online)
  • "Liminal States" (2012) by Zack Parsons
 Our selection for next time is Nnedi Okorafor's "Lagoon" (2015)!  October 12th, same Bat-time (6:30pm), same Bat-Filter-Cafe (1373 N. Milwaukee).

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