Being a fan of a particular genre doesn’t blind you to its flaws. So being an unabashed admirer of both science fiction and fantasy hasn’t prevented me from seeing how, aside from a few notable exceptions, both genres are lily white and Euro-centric. While apologists can probably make a case for writers like Tolkien describing his villains as either “swarthy” or “svart” while his heroes are universally pale skinned by employing the well-worn “product of his times” argument, those writing in the later decades of the 20th century can’t be offered the same out. In fact one would have hoped those in the business of writing about the future would have taken that opportunity to create worlds reflecting the social changes that occurred during the years they were writing. At the very least it would have been nice to see a few darker-skinned characters created without the adjective exotic tagged onto their description.
In some ways fantasy has been the worst of the two, as title after title rolls off the presses with stories whose roots lie somewhere in Europe. When you consider the wealth of material from around the world that could spark an author’s imagination, or the fact that you can’t walk down a street in any major Western city without seeing an exciting mix of colours, sizes and shapes among the populace, it’s disconcerting to be reading freshly published books perpetuating old stereotypes of dark villains threatening the virtue of some pale-skinned lovely.
Part of the explanation could lie in the fact that when you look at photos taken at gatherings of fantasy writers, you’ll notice quite a difference from what you’d see on the street. It’s awfully reminiscent of shots taken at what used to be referred to as exclusive or restricted clubs; i.e white Anglo-Saxon Protestant only.
This isn’t a deliberate thing, nor is racism implied, but it is a fact, and one that doesn’t look like it is changing with any speed. For in spite of the subject matter, science fiction and fantasy publishers are just as conservative, if not more so, than their mainstream counterparts. All of which goes a long way in explaining my interest in a title being released by Penguin Canada on February 7 2012 – Throne Of The Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Ahmed has a solid history as a short story writer, even being a finalist for a couple of awards. This is his first full-length novel, however, and it is not always a smooth transition from one format to another. While I was happy to see an author looking to other traditions for inspiration, what really matters is how well he or she is able to handle the basics of storytelling.
The good news is that Ahmed is as good as, if not better than, anyone else out there writing fantasy today. He has created a vibrant and exciting world where his characters both live and have the adventures which form the basis of the story.
Like many fantasy writers he has chosen to base his world on a version of our past. In this case he has looked to the ancient city states of the Islamic world. The majority of the tale takes place within the walls of the great city Dhamsawaat, with the characters making only occasional forays into the countryside. While there are five main characters involved in telling us the story, the city becomes another character who lives and breathes alongside everybody else. Ahmed’s descriptions are so vivid she takes on the type of distinct personality we ascribe to the places we are most familiar with.
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is feeling every one of his three score and ten years these days. A good many of those years have been spent keeping the people of his beloved Dhamsawaat safe from the monsters sent to plague mankind by the Traitorous Angel. While it’s true the doctor has been doing the work of the Blessed God, he’s as profane as any street urchin trying to spot a pocket ripe for the picking. In order to be able to perform the magic necessary to dispatch the ghuls and assorted demons he faces in his work, the Doctor has had to make sacrifices, chief among them not being able to marry and raise a family.