Longtime readers know that I'm a fan of speculative fiction. For those among y'all who share that interest, I'm here to recommend Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, the first book in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms series.
I loved pretty much everything about this book. And I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read it yet, because part of the joy of it is seeing how its world unfolds through its twists and turns. But I can say a few things without venturing into spoiler territory, and the first one is: this book has great characters. They are real, whole, complicated people and I come away from the book wanting more -- not because Ahmed didn't give us enough, but because I just want to keep hanging out with them and vicariously experiencing their adventures.
This book also does a gorgeous job of depicting a fantasy world which draws on the tastes and textures and smells and sounds and mythologies of a place which is not Western. Reading Crescent Moon catapults me directly into every time I've been blessed with the opportunity to walk the twisty crowded ancient streets of of Cairo, Jerusalem, Amman. This book isn't set in our world, but it evokes some places which are in our world; it feels true to those places even while it goes above and beyond the lived reality of those places. And the same is true of the book's mythology / folklore / magic -- some of it draws on preexisting stories and ideas (djinn, ghuls), and some of it is Ahmed's own creation.
I like the different forms of religiosity we see here -- most especially the balance between Adoulla and his young companion Raseed. Adoulla's middle-aged, world-weary, and humor-laced way of being religious doesn't always dovetail neatly with Raseed's youthful fiery desire for spiritual purity, and that difference is neither ignored nor resolved; they exist side-by-side. I like the young lioness Zamia Laith Banu Badawi, and her growing sense of kinship with the alkhemist Litaz, despite their differences. We get just enough of each of their stories to make them real and whole -- and just little enough that I really want more of both of them. (Here's hoping they're both in the next book, eh?) And I like that Zamia and Raseed's relationship remains complicated and interesting to the end of the book -- there were a few different easy ways out, and Ahmed didn't take any of them.
And I like how Islam is reflected and refracted in this book. These characters aren't Muslim, precisely, in the same way that Dhamsawaat isn't any earthly city -- but in their ways of interacting with scripture, and their ways of talking about God, they evoke Islam for me as a reader, as I think they are meant to do. Hanging out with these characters makes me think of things I learned while studying Islam (particularly Sufism) in rabbinic school; the quotations from scripture have the same ring, to my ear, as translations of the Qur'an. And I really like the centrality of faith in the way the narrative unfolds. God is all over this book, is what I'm saying, and -- no surprise -- I love that. I find myself thinking of how the Narnia books aren't explicitly Christian, though to a reader who knows Lewis' theology, Christian ideas are visible in the book. (Actually, full disclosure: that was Ethan's insight.) I think this book works with Islam in a parallel kind of way.
I've read a number of really good books lately which work with entirely non-Western mythologies, characters, landscapes. None of them are set in our world, exactly. G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen (reviewed here) probably comes closest to our world. N.K. Jemisin's Dreamblood duology and Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky books evoke aspects of this world's histories and cultures in really fascinating ways, but they're not set in this world. (Bear does neat things with an alternate-universe Mongolia, and Jemisin's books evoke ancient Egyptian culture and mythology.) All of these books open up vistas beyond the ones we've known, while also managing to give us new ways of thinking about the world we do inhabit. Come to think of it, that's what good speculative fiction always does, for me. Anyway. If this is the sort of thing you like, this book is definitely one to get. And hey! right now only it's six dollars for the Kindle, making it an easy gamble to take.