Throne of the Crescent Moon: DAW hardcover, February 2012, 274 pages, cover art by Jason Chan. Saladin Ahmed is a new writer who has already made a big splash, with a Nebula nomination for his short story "Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela" and two Campbell Award nominations for best new writer. Throne of the Crescent Moon is his first novel, and it has been getting a lot of buzz, prompting us to name it one of our four "seeded" books in this bracket.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is medieval fantasy set in an Arabic society, described believably by Saladin Ahmed, a Muslim Arab-American. Our protagonist, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, is the last ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat. He knows he's getting too old, tired, and fat to continue to tangle with supernatural creatures, but no successor has stepped up to relieve him of the duty, although at least he has the help of his small but lethally quick assistant Raseed. The first 25 pages mention a conflict between the ruling Khalif and a rebel called the Falcon Prince, and we also learn of murders committed by ghuls summoned by an unknown sorcerer.
Revealing Eden: Sand Dollar hardcover, January 2012, 307 pages, cover art by Matthew Desotell. Victoria Hoyt is an actress and screenwriter, who has starred in such films as Last Summer in the Hamptons and Déjà Vu, usually working with her husband, director Henry Jaglom. Her first novel was the young adult fantasy/mystery The Virtual Life of Lexie Diamoond, published by HarperCollins.
Revealing Eden joins the trendy sub-genre of young adult post-apocalyptic science fiction. Severe global warming has driven everyone underground. Due to the effects of radiation, caucasians ("Pearls") die young, while dark-skinned "Coals" dominate society. Our heroine Eden is six months away from turning 18, and if she hasn't found a husband by then, she will be killed. She is set on attracting a black mate, but "Pearls" are regarded as ugly, and only one "Coal" has shown the slightest interest in her, Jamal, the security guard in the research facility where she works.
The Battle: I can't hold the suspense going for this one. Throne of the Crescent Moon has a very impressive opening, while Revealing Eden has a lot of problems.
Starting with the good news, after 25 pages it is already clear that Throne of the Crescent Moon combines a distinctive setting with nicely developed characters and a strong narrative voice. Our aging protagonist is clearly flawed yet instantly likeable.
I've mentioned in previous Battle of the Books posts how traditional high fantasy novels typically had a straightforward good-against-evil conflict, while current fantasies usually have more shades of gray. In Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed bucks the trend——his good guys are very good and his bad guys extremely bad. Here's how he gets away with it: the characters aren't good or evil just because they've been assigned that role. There are reasons for their behaviors; something is at stake for them. The bad guys are cruel because they need to be. In this universe, dark magic works through causing others to suffer. And our hero is brave and valiant in his defense of his kingdom, despite his low opinion of their Khalif, because he knows if the kingdom falls he'll no longer be able to find a decent cup of tea.
For long-time science fiction readers, the premise of Revealing Eden——people survive catastrophe underground, and blacks come to dominate society while whites are subjugated——will immediately call to mind Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold. Revealing Eden suffers greatly in comparison. For one thing, Heinlein gave a believable reason for the societal shift: the superpowers nearly annihilated each other in nuclear war, leaving a power vacuum for Africans to fill. Foyt is offering a similar cautionary tale about climate change, but it makes no sense. People of color are in control and live much longer because of global warming? How could melanin conceivably make such a huge difference, especially if everybody lives underground? Even if there were a scientific basis for that, it is counterintuitive enough to demand explanation, or at least some hand-waving, in a science fiction novel.
And while we're trying to figure that out, why on earth does this society demand, on penalty of death, that you marry by 18? At one point, we are told it's because everyone must "contribute to the continuation of our species," but I should think an underground society would be more worried about holding the birthrate down; indeed, in another passage we learn that no one is allowed to have more than one child. Plenty of small details similarly don't ring true. For example, Eden bemoans the fact that her hair is brittle from the black coating she puts on it every couple of days to try to fit in. So this is a society in which everyone has a personal holoprojector, but they've forgotten the concept of hair dye?
All these strained details are there to set up Foyt's examination of race relations. But when Robert Heinlein showed a society dominated by people of African ancestry in 1964, he was challenging his readers to consider the bigotry of their own society. Foyt's purpose is similar here: depicting a cruel ruling black class to show her white readers how awful it is to be subjected to discrimination——I assume that's her purpose, because I can't think of any other purpose that wouldn't be highly distasteful——but today, that story concept feels outdated and much too simplistic. In 2012, even addressing young readers, surely there are better ways of conveying the importance of diversity and tolerance than by showing people of color all being mean and nasty to the white characters.
How about, for example, presenting an interesting society with a different culture and ethnic mix from ours? Saladin Ahmed has done that in Throne of the Crescent Moon, in the context of what promises to be a compelling story.
THE WINNER: THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON by Saladin Ahmed
Throne of the Crescent Moon advances to the second round, to meet The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner. Ahmed and Renner are already talking smack on Twitter, so you don't want to miss that one.
To see the whole bracket, click here.