Most of the sci-if I’ve read comes from white dudes: William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Isaac Asimov… the list goes on. Even the score-if writers I know who set novels in other cultures, such as Ian McDonald (River of Gods, The Dervish House) and George Alec Effinger (When Gravity Fails) are still written by white dudes.
I don’t normally read fantasy novels. Certainly not sword-and-sorcery fantasy. But what attracted me to Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed, were its unique voice and setting. This is a fantasy novel set in an Islamic world, written by a Muslim author (and written quite well, I might add).
The novel ‘s central character is Adoulla Mahkslood, the world’s last ghul hunter. Ghuls are zombie-like creatures created by sorcerers (or ghul-makers) via magic powered by human sacrifice. Mahkslood and his young, fundamentalist assistant, Raseed, find themselves confronted by an evil of a magnitude not seen in millenia — a ghul-maker powerful enough to enslave the world.
Others join them on their quest. There is Zamia, a young woman with the ability to change shape into a lion. And Adoulla’s old friends, the sorcerer Dawoud and his potion-maker wife, Litaz.
All of Ahmed’s characters struggle with the role of religion and faith in their world. Adoulla is clearly a spiritual man — but he’s come to view his work more as a grim burden than a noble calling. Toward the very end of the novel (SPOILER ALERT), he observes:
He and his friends had faced their most powerful threat yet, and defeated it. And everything and nothing had changed. The sky had not split open to reveal the Ministering Angels singing that all ghul-makers were dead. There was no shower of flowers from a forever-safe populace. Tomorrow, or the next day, or a month from now, some fishmonger or housewife would come to Adoulla with more terrified tales. God had not rewarded Adoulla with retirement in a peaceful palace full of food and friends.
Adoulla clearly believes in God. But his faith is far from blind obedience. Contrast that with a group known as the Humble Students:
The Humble Students were charged with chastising those who needed to be chastised, helping men and women to walk the path of God. But Raseed had learned that some Humble students did this more out of greed or cruelty then righteousness […] Unsurprisingly, Raseed’s mentor was among their despisers. “I don’t trust anyone who claims to serve God by beating up dancers and drunks,” the Doctor had growled once.
For me, the pleasure of reading Throne of the Crescent Moon lay not so much in getting from Plot Point A to Plot Point B but in exploring a nuanced world through the eyes of its characters. All credit to Saladin Ahmed for a wonderful journey.
The reason sci-fi (or speculative fiction) dominate my fiction reading list is that when I read for pleasure I read to escape. Between working in financial planning and studying for the CFA Level II exam, I get a healthy dose of “reality” on a daily basis. It’s refreshing to discover a new world created by someone other than a middle-aged white dude. And frankly I can’t wait to discover more.