A few months ago I had a post up about Game of Thrones, where I argued that to a great extent the book and the world that George R. R. Martin created was racist because that’s true to how pre-modern worlds generally are constructed structurally. When fantasists create a ‘secondary world’ they are almost always using our own universe as a prototype, often shading or refashioning some aspect here and there to taste. A true fantasy which is totally counter-intuitive and lacks familiar coherency is without any anchor for a reader, and so lacks narrative power. Fantasy stripped away of injustice or oppression would be without dramatic tension. Utopia does not sell. Additionally, the speculative element in this literature is sharply bounded by precedent. Modern fantasy in its origins is simply an elaboration of the epic literature which is often at the root of contemporary civilizations. J. R. R. Tolkien attempted to create in his own works a simulacrum of a rich epic folk past for the Anglo-Saxon peoples analogous to what the Scandinavians had thanks to Snorri Sturluson’s efforts.
My post on Martin’s work was prompted by the ruminations of one Saladin Ahmed, whose piece in Salon manifested all the stale standard post-colonial inflected drivel which riddles much of popular literary criticism. Ahmed popped up in the thread of my post, but actually misunderstood the intent! The reason is pretty straightforward I think: our “paradigms” are so different that he had a hard time hearing me correctly initially. I responded to Ahmed, but weirdly enough though he hung around the comment thread he never really engaged with me after I made my own stance clearer to him. Whether it disturbed him, or did not interest him, I will never know.
With all that back story entered into the record I actually purchased Ahmed’s debut fantasy novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, a few days after my encounter with him on this weblog. I spent about a month reading it on my Kindle in my spare time here and there. Why did I spend money purchasing fiction produced by someone whose ideas I perceive to be second-rate and derivative? There are two major issues. First, many colored people complain about the ‘Eurocentric’ nature of fiction, film, etc. But complaining is easy. Where are these people when it comes to actually producing their own alternatives? Ahmed has done this, so for that one has to give him his due. Second, just because on finds an author disagreeable, objectionable, or even offensive, does not mean that an author is not worth reading. I doubt many of Tolkien’s readers today share his traditionalist Roman Catholicism. It is after all a work of fiction. Nor do all of Isaac Asimov’s readers of his Foundation series go along with the implicit atheism that’s a reflection of the author’s own views (Hari Seldon was based on Asimov himself).
Throne of the Crescent Moon actually got very high marks on Amazon. But if I had to rate it, I’d give it 3.5 stars. It wasn’t a bad book, but neither was it a page turner, at least for the first 2/3. Since I read it on the Kindle I didn’t have a page count handy, but Amazon said it has 288 pages. And that’s the problem: Ahmed tried to do too much on too small of a narrative canvas. Many of my criticisms of particular elements of Throne of the Crescent Moon can probably be reduced down to the fact that the author simply did not develop the thread very well because he was trying to do so much in parallel. As a concrete example Ahmed’s attempts to create romantic side-plots over the course of this one book were about as believable as what the late Robert Jordan achieved: plausible only to a 12 year old. After finishing the book I’m willing to chalk this up to limitations of space, and assume that the full arc of the relationships will be fleshed out over the trilogy. Because of the short length of the book though the primary character managed to develop some depth his accomplices remained a bundle of psychological reflexes.
Probably the best thing about Ahmed’s narrative is that despite the excessive set up and frankly torpid plotting of the first 2/3 things start to speed up over the course of the last 100 pages or so. Unlike many first volumes of a series this is not just a “set up” book. Though at the end there are some loose ends you can really read Throne of the Crescent Moon as a standalone, rather than just an introduction to a series. The ending may have been a bit hurried, and perhaps forced, but it was certainly more satisfying than what you find in many fantasy novels, which never seem to get to any point (e.g., the last of Martin’s books to name one!).
The spottiest aspect of Throne of the Crescent Moon is the world-building, and the novelty of a faux Islamic civilization. My version of the book did not come with a map, and the geographic margins were not very clear to me. I appreciate that Ahmed did not replicate our own world in totality, changing only a few of the names, but that also means that the onus was upon him to fill in some of the empty spaces. Again, this may be a task left to later books, but it left me unsatisfied. Many of the basic elements seem to be drawn from the world of the high Abbasids, with Bedouin and “marsh Arabs” making appearances. And just as fantasy based on a European medieval model tends to create their own variants of Christianity, so the author created his own analog to Islam. But there were just enough difference that the derivation was not a replication. The religion in Throne of the Crescent Moon was Islam-like, but clearly not Islamic.
Which brings me to the point of the title: if Saladin Ahmed was named Salvatore Anderson I believe that many people, including Saladin Ahmed, might accuse the author of engaging in “Orientalism.” Though there is a technical meaning for Orientalism, the reality is that it just refers to a whole class of instances where Westerners co-opt, characterize, or utilize, non-Western motifs and cultures. For the first 2/3 of Throne of the Crescent Moon every other character is quoting the Koran-equivalent every other sentence, and there’s a reference to God every third word. I exaggerate, but it read like a Westerner’s stereotype of pious Middle Eastern folk who fear an Almighty God. Some of the reviewers at Amazon criticized the author’s rendering of female characters. If he was Salvatore Anderson I can’t help but wonder if some of those critics might wonder if he was stereotyping male-female relationships in the Middle East, and projecting an Orientalist fantasy of sexual relationships upon Islamic societies? The reality is that I suspect that in 288 pages there is only so much you can do, and the female characters were not developed because of feedback in the editing process. Often male authors who are criticized for this rectify the situation in future books, but you are still left with the reality that rectification is necessary in the first place.
Now, what if Saladin Ahmed wrote a book set in an analog of India? I can only imagine the attacks he might suffer from angry Hindus, who perceived in his treatment some sort of slight. A reader in the earlier post quipped that Ahmed was clearly not going outside of his comfort zone, an Arab creating Arabesque fantasy. But the reality is that in today’s hyper-sensitive identity-focused world where frauds and the intellectually lazy are always on alert to scream bloody murder, the best thing to do is write what you know in an essentialist sense so that you can insulate yourself from charges of insensitivity toward the Other. This is not always enough to insulate you. A white Western author who only writes about whites may be criticized for being exclusionary, but that is probably a better state that being criticized for depicting non-whites with insensitivity.
Overall Throne of the Crescent Moon is an interesting, if not outstanding, book. Its basic constituents in substance are not particularly original, though stylistically the author brings his own Arabesque spin. Due to constraints of time I’ll probably not be reading further on in the series, but if the author is given more latitude by his publisher to write longer I wouldn’t be surprised if the future editions are more well written as editors start to operate with a lighter touch. Though I do have to add for a genuinely original take on the fantasy genre, instead of simply rearranging the furniture, you probably have to go to Brandon Sanderson. Unfortunately Sanderson’s work tends to read a bit on the young adult side, but his world-building really does break out of the Tolkien template.