Throne of the Crescent Moonby: Saladin Ahmed
THIS SPRING, the fantasy author Saladin Ahmed wrote a short piece at Salon.com pointing to the long tradition of racial stereotyping in fantasy literature, which lately culminated in HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones. The show’s “Mongol-inspired” Dothraki were introduced in an orgiastic battle royal of a wedding feast, setting up the swarthiest people on the first season of the hit series as a bunch of crude, instinct-driven beasts. While the show certainly exposes the beastliness of its lighter-skinned characters as well, Game of Thrones — like the George R.R. Martin novels that provide its source material — reflects retrograde ideas about race with the inclusion of non-European savages as background props. Like many dark-skinned tribes in fantasy, the racially coded Dothraki exist only as flat shapes, an exotic Eastern Other against which the white characters define themselves as civilized. That pattern is familiar to anyone who has watched the culminating battle of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and wondered why the heroes are suddenly fighting against a group of vaguely Indian-looking, elephant-riding, tattooed men, who all seemed to appear out of nowhere.
In his article on Game of Thrones, Ahmed calls on audiences and authors to rethink the casual orientalism that limits the roles of non-white characters in fantasy novels and films. Valuable as Ahmed’s critique of Game of Thrones is, it also explains part of what makes his own novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon such a welcome addition to the genre. In Throne, the first book of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms trilogy, Ahmed takes on the challenge of writing a sword-and-sorcery novel set in a fictional medieval Arabian world. While he’s not the first to swap out the European neo-medieval for medieval pseudo-Arabia, he may be the first to do so with an eye trained steadily on the post-9/11 American scene.
Ahmed hails from the Arab-American cultural hub of Dearborn, Michigan, and he has published poems in the academic journal Callaloo and elsewhere, in addition to his critically acclaimed fantasy short stories. In taking contemporary Arab-American writing out of the realm of realism and nonfiction, Ahmed faces a complex challenge. Isn’t writing in the vein of the Thousand and One Nights — still the major work of fantasy in world literature — necessarily creating a kind of fantasy Arab, the shadowy pre-modern figure against whom George W. Bush seemed to want to “crusade”? Richard F. Burton, the great nineteenth-century English translator of the Arabian Nights, saw Arabia as the very stuff of dreams, “a region so familiar to my mind that even at first sight, it seemed a reminiscence of some bygone metempsychic life in the distant Past.” Fantasy — the magic that makes what we see into what we want to see — seems hard to reconcile with a desire to change outmoded perceptions.
Throne, though, far from seeming like a calculated exercise in political correctness, matches the familiar and pleasurable elements of the fantasy genre with a cast of unique, multidimensional Arab characters. The premise, in which a ragtag band saves the world using near-forgotten magic, gives the book an overall structure reminiscent of the Star Wars or Harry Potter fra...read more