Genre : Fantasy
My Rating : ★★★★☆
Saladin Ahmed’s debut fiction, a Nebula award nominated work enthralls the reader from the word go. It follows a group of well-wishers of a kingdom fight against a great and powerful enemy that the main protagonist Adoulla a ghul hunter has never come across before. The novel, although it screams ‘Sword and Sorcery’ is in itself more than that. The book does have it’s share of sword fighting blood and incidents that would make any brave soul cringe, but the portrayal bequeaths from the genre-type to one that dwells to human meta-physical sense. It speaks about each member’s stance in face of hardship, their choices, their inner battles and the ill-fated bargains they do with negative emotions to reach their goal.
The other important characters are Adoulla’s dervish, Raseed bas Raseed, the tribeswoman and guard of her band, Zamia, an Alchemist and her husband who is Adoulla’s long time friend and the Falcon prince who strives to balance out the divide between the rich and the poor while plotting to kill the iron-fisted Khalif and rule the kingdom himself. The book is heavy on theism and Islamic connotations, which would do good to change the minds of the ignorant who have been brainwashed by fear-mongers to consider Islam being a religion of extremism. The book itself talks about extremist with hope and moderate with experience and calculated approach, and the chemistry between the doctor as the main-protagonist is referred as, and his young dervish is told in well structured manner.
The novel is filled with shape shifters, beautiful ornate castles, water ghuls, fire ghuls, bone ghuls, zombi like skin ghuls which can reform to totality from every shred it’s attackers tore it into, magicians, alchemists and even a part-shadow part-jackal man. The novel fails short in that the story is too straightforward and every story changing incidents end abruptly, but it succeeds in everything else, the buildup and the characterization. The words are decorated with beautiful explanations and Saladin takes our imagination into the city of Dhamsawaat, which is the setting of the book, with ease. I’d like to add I was put down from less view-of-the-plot from other members of the protagonist gang, perhaps the author liked Adoulla very much that he did less with the romance between the young dervish and the bandit fighter, that I’d have liked to read. And to save the best to last, it was highly refreshing to have a setting far from European Medieval into an Islamic world, where currency is counted in dinars and dirhams, and you seek answers for the matters of your heart from the loved one kneeling before her placing your forehead on her feet.
The juxtaposition of youthful hope with raw talent and extreme ideals and experience of ages with cautions and calculated approach to every problem, the master and his student’s striking difference lacquers every chapter of the story. If it has been just days since devouring some Joe Abercrombie or Patrick Rothfuss fast paced books, you might be in for some scour from the initial chapters, but once you get a hang of the writing, you are in for the thrill that is the conclusion where the pace picks up so much that I didn’t recognize the end of the book when it arrived.
Not to be missed, a book that stands by itself, great debut and first in a planned trilogy. The short 288 page fantasy book sticks to you far more than 600 pagers his peers put out every year.
Footnote : Once you are done with the book you should consider the prequel and Adoulla’s introduction in the short story Where Virtue Lives.