Author: Saladin Ahmed
Information on series: Book 1 of an intended trilogy
Audience: Adult, with probable YA crossover
Rating (scale of 1-5, with 5 being highest): 5
TL;DR: A fast-paced and character-driven high fantasy adventure in a fully realized non-traditional setting.
Longer review: Ahmed has been very successful at a seemingly paradoxical task: he’s written a novel that is at once accessibly familiar and intriguingly unconventional. This book shows exactly why I hate to read debut novels -- I loved it and very much want to read more of his work but there is no more to be found.
The story is set in Dhamsawaat, the greatest city of the Crescent Moon Empire. It is a city of wonders, dangers, opulence, and poverty. While the poor struggle under to rule of a tyrannical Khalif, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood fights more concrete evils. He is a ghul hunter, the last of his order in the city. He battles ghuls, djenn and other magical creatures alongside a small group of allies: a pious swordsman from a holy order of dervishs, an orphaned nomadic tribeswoman with shape-changing powers, and a magus and an alchemist, both old friends of the doctor’s who’ve tried to retire from the adventuring life. As the story unfolds, a powerful new threat comes to light and the heroes are forced to question their hopes, ideals, and relationships. This is definitely more of a fantasy adventure than an epic fantasy. The plot moves quickly, with frequent action sequences. Ahmed does not dwell on politics, armaments, fashion, or cuisine as Tolkien or Martin might.
The tropes and plot points of this book will be familiar to most readers of fantasy. That familiarity works well here, providing an accessible structure upon which Ahmed can hang his richly detailed world based upon Arabic mythology that is likely to be new to many readers.
The five heroes are very well-imagined, each with their own goals and fears. Ahmed makes the wise choice of switching the focal character with each chapter. This doesn’t generally go so far as to repeat entire scenes from a new point of view, but we get each character’s contrasting views of major plot points and other characters’ actions. Since the characters were such a strong point of the book, I’m happy that Ahmed intends to write more in this world, giving me a chance to spend some more time with them.As a bit of an aside, I started this as an audio book before finishing it in print. Phil Gigante’s performance was really great and I may seek out more audio books read by him.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss: Like Ahmed, Rothfuss captures the magic and excitement of high fantasy without the gritty mundanity that sometimes creeps into epic fantasy. Charismatic characters and a compelling writing style keep things lively.
Review by: Andrew Fuerste-Henry, Carnegie Stout Public Library