After a bitterly cold Easter, many people are dreaming of escaping to somewhere hot. So this week I’m recommending `Throne of the Crescent Moon’ by Saladin Ahmed, which will transport you to the desert kingdom of Abassen. As this is a recent publication, the choice is between hardback and ebook versions. I prefer the American cover to the British one but it’s a matter of taste. `Throne of the Crescent Moon’ is billed as Book One of `The Crescent Moon Kingdoms’. Nowadays it is hard to find a new Fantasy novel which isn’t part of a series. This book has a reasonably complete story arc but leaves plenty of scope for future adventures for Ahmed’s  leading characters.

In Dhamsawaat, the chief city of Abassen, lives `the Great and  Virtuous Doctor’ Adoulla, one of the last of the true ghul-hunters.  Adoulla has spent his life fighting various kinds of man-eating ghul, and the wicked followers of the Traitorous Angel who conjure them up, but now he is old and tired. In his latest battle, he was only saved by the extraordinary swordsmanship of his assistant, the puritanical young Dervish, Raseed. Adoulla would like to retire and marry his former sweetheart, Miri, but he has visions of rivers of blood in the streets of Dhamsawaat. When Miri’s niece and her husband are murdered in the marshes near the city, Adoulla and Raseed go to investigate.

`In all his years of ghul hunting, Adoulla had never seen a man make more than two of the monsters at a time’  but  this time they encounter a whole pack of bone-ghuls. In the ensuing battle, they acquire an unexpected ally in the form of Zamia, a Badawi tribeswoman with the power to turn herself into a lioness. Fifteen year old  Zamia is eager to take revenge on the soul-eating monster who has destroyed her tribe but she agrees to stay with the ghul-hunters in Dhamsawaat. After a near-fatal attack by the terrifying man-jackal Mouw Awa, Adoulla is forced to seek help from old friends – the magus Dawoud and his wife the alkhemist Litaz. Meanwhile tensions are rising in the city as more people are murdered and a thief known as the Falcon Prince daringly challenges the rule of the hated Khalif. Adoulla and his helpers gradually uncover the identity of the person behind the attacks, and an evil plot based on an ancient secret. Then, as Adoulla puts it, “We need only defeat the most powerful ghul-maker we’ve ever faced. And somehow slay his unkillable creature while we’re at it.” Things don’t go to plan and difficult decisions have to be made if the city is to be saved.

I nearly abandoned this book after the extremely gruesome prologue, thinking that `Throne of the Crescent Moon’ was going to be a mindlessly nasty horror story with one-dimensional characters who belonged in a Fantasy role-playing game. The first chapter gave me a completely different impression . It starts with Adoulla reading a poem about his beloved home city of Dhamsawaat and then follows his early morning routine as the ghul-hunter drinks a bowl of spicy-sweet cardamom tea and eats a freashly baked `almond nest’ in his favourite tea-house. Grumpy Adoulla from Dead Donkey Lane and the teeming street-life of his  city quickly became very real to me.

I think Dhamsawaat is going to be one of the great cities of Fantasy fiction. Ahmed describes many different aspects of the city from the historic splendour of Angels Square and the opulence of the Khalif’s palace to the smelly squalor  of the `ironically named Scholars’ Quarter’.  Abassen, which was formerly ruled by the pagan Faroes of Kem, has much in common with Egypt and Dhamsawaat with the Cairo of the `Arabian Nights’ (I write as one who has trudged through all seventeen volumes of Sir Richard Burton’s translation of `The Thousand  Nights And One’) but Ahmed has given the setting of his story its own unique geography, history and religion. Dhamsawaat may be imaginary but it isn’t idealized. This `cold-hearted’ city seems hideously noisy and overcrowded to a desert-dweller like Zamia. The government of the Khalif is corrupt and cruel, a Taliban-like religious group stalks the streets punishing women,  and the city is full of angry people desperate enough to listen to anyone who promises change. Does any of that sound familiar?

The plot  of `Throne of the Crescent Moon’ with its monsters, magic and combats  sounds like standard `Sword and Sorcery’  but this is really a story about people in crisis. Ahmed has created a troubled and fallible bunch of heroes and heroines.  One of the pleasures of reading this novel was that he skilfully made me sympathize with each of his main characters in turn. Even the manjackal Mouw Awa is touchingly devoted to the man who has freed  him. Fat Adoulla, in his miraculous self-cleaning kaftan, is a deliberately unheroic figure. He’s in love with a brothel-keeper he can’t marry because of his calling, and he wonders `why God has made his life in this world such a tiring, lonely chore’. Likeable and amusing as he is, Adoulla is sometimes shown as over-cynical and patronising towards the two young people. Adoulla mocks the prigish behaviour of his devout assistant Raseed but the author doesn’t. Raseed is portrayed as a naive but honourable young man, struggling to resist first love and suddenly uncertain about his role as a divinely-sanctioned killer. Zamia is a strong young woman who has already failed in her role as Protector of her tribe. Will guilt and a thirst for revenge, prevent her from building a new life for herself? Dawoud and Litaz are outsiders from Soo. Dawoud fears losing the love of his wife because his magic has aged him beyond his years. Litaz is that rare thing, a mature Fantasy heroine. She has never quite shaken off her aristocratic origins and increasingly yearns to go home. There are enough interesting dilemmas here for a whole series and I ended the book wanting to know more about these people and their fates

One important figure isn’t given the naturalistic treatment and it’s clearly deliberate. The flamboyant Falcon Prince, Pharaad, swoops in and out of the story like the sort of action hero Douglas Fairbanks Sr and Jr used to play.  Some of Ahmed’s characters are charmed by the self-styled Prince; others remain suspicious of him, so the reader is left guessing. At one point Pharaad demands to know why the ghul-hunters waste their time slaying monsters when the poverty and opression caused by human rulers do so much  harm to so many people.  It’s a good question and one that should be asked more often in Fantasy fiction. Just as you think you can label Pharaad as one of the Good Guys, the extent of his plans becomes clear. The Falcon Prince’s actions at the gory climax of the plot will probably divide readers as they do the characters who witness them.  `Throne of the Crescent Moon’  has all the magic, romance and excitement you might expect from an`Arabian Nights’ style adventure but it deepens into a complex and fascinating story. Try it and you might even feel warmer. Until next week…