I’ve returned from my conference with two finished Hugo nominees and a nice head cold. Both books were immensely enjoyable, but I think The Throne of the Crescent Moon took the award for the best of the two. I listened to it as an audio book on my drive to and from my conference, and I must say it was an enjoyable way to spend the time.
Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed (audiobook version)
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood wants to retire from his career as a legendary ghul hunter, but must face one more epic struggle against his most frightening nemesis yet. He is aided by his pious assistant Raseed, and a shape-shifting Bedouin girl, Zamia, along with his longtime magical friends, Dawoud and Litaz.
What I loved:
1. Unlike many fantasy-style stories, the characters are strong and believable. Even the romances between characters are complex and well-paced. I walked away from the book caring about everyone, and hoping there would be a sequel that would bring all the lead characters together again.
2. The details, the mood, the culture… every corner of this world has a piece of beauty in it. Mr. Ahmed builds a gorgeous fantasy world based on the Muslim culture, and pays heed to the nuances that exist in such a world. As a tea lover, the opening pages drew me in as the main character ruminated over his deep love of cardamom tea. I understand.
3. I love that each character has their own unique worldview, which often conflicts with other views in the group. Too often, fantasy characters tend to divide between good and evil, and it’s easy to discern the good guys from bad guys. One of the themes of this story is that good people can come in all packages– which is a hard lesson for some of his characters to learn.
What I… not necessarily disliked, but was uncomfortable with???
1. Basing a fantasy novel on the Muslim culture invites lots of “praise be to God” comments and such. As a skeptic, I prefer novels that are scientific-leaning, godless, or archaically mythological, or novels that include a religious system, but which is often portrayed as the antagonistic part of the story. It’s unusual to find fiction of that is based upon a popular, modern religion.
It was easy to forget my discomfort with all the “praising” and get swept up in the storyline, but there were times when I had to consciously set aside my biases. (As I listened to the final 20 minutes this morning, I wondered if my husband would walk in the room and ask me if I was getting ready for church.) Despite my discomfort, the Islamic element adds dimension to the story, and it would not have been as good without it. (And, yes, I realize that if the story was based on the other popular, modern, monotheistic religion, it would have been more difficult for me to set aside my biases.)
2. Another slight negative, is that the bad guy seems a bit cartoony. While the narration on the audiobook is amazing– (do they have Oscars for audio book narrators? Because Phil Gigante deserves one. Wow.)– I can’t tell if it is the narration or the writing that makes the antagonist seem so campy. Yes, the bad guy is a seriously scary bad guy, but every time he came around, I pictured a children’s cartoon in my mind. But I’m not sure how Mr. Ahmed could improve upon this portrayal. How can a soul-eating man-jackal be portrayed realistically, really?
Bottom line, I loved this book. The gorgeous Arabian setting provided a fresh take to a tired genre, and I wanted to befriend all the characters.
Redshirts by John Scalzi
This is a blindingly fast read that changes focus just as quickly, and pays homage to our favorite sci-fi genre TV shows. It’s a poor man’s version of Star Trek, but then again, it’s not really about that at all. Oops, I’ve said too much!
Young Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Intrepid, but things are not as they appear. When he starts to question the mysterious accidents that happen to his fellow Ensigns, and the strange behavior of the higher officers, things get dangerous.
What I liked:
1. The opening chapter is hilarious. Written from a pathetic ensign’s point-of-view (picture Wesley Crusher), we get to hear his thoughts during a typically ill-fated away team mission.
2. The final chapter is a romance, and light-years away from the first “coda.” And I’m pretty sure it’s about Worf. Who doesn’t love Worf?
3. I’m pretty sure every element of the sci-fi genre makes an appearance here. You want time travel? You got it. You want parallel universes with doppelgängers? Sure. Body-swapping? Why not. I love that Scalzi manages to turn his story into the very thing he parodies. So meta.
What I didn’t like:
1. It reads like a throw-away novel. It goes fast, and the dialogue was smirking at me the entire time. The characters aren’t developed at all, although that is the point of the story. Still, the book reads like a screenplay, and maybe that’s what it should have been. I would watch it.
2. It’s crass. The characters are crude, which is probably realistic for any person who signs their life away to work on a space ship away from home. I’m just as crass in my own life, but I prefer my books to be a little more polite.
3. It’s a silly book. Even as it gets serious and teleological toward the end, it’s hard to shake off the silliness. I’m kind of surprised it was nominated for a Hugo award, other than other writers appreciated the metatastically metaness of it all. I guess it’s kind of like the Extras of the sci-fi world. There’s another reason this would probably be best as a live-action show.
Bottom line: It was a fun read. Time to move on.