A friend of mine and I recently read Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. It was a fun book. But as someone who is extremely interested in world-building, I found a few things disappointing. The style of world-building in Throne is allusion-analogue world-building: There’s a secondary world, but it has strong similiarities to cultures and history from Earth. This style relies on the reader’s familiarity with the real history and culture involved to build a world with less of the info-dumping common to many secondary-world spec fic. It also allows the author to make more straight-forward references to the real world for comedic or moral or philosophical effect.
Although I don’t personally do a lot of academic reading on genres in general, and spec fic in particular, there is some useful material pointed out to me by my friend:
Farah Mendlesohn wrote a book called Rhetorics of Fantasy, which described an axis of categorization between including “immersive”, portal, “intrusive”, and “liminal” fantasy. Essentially, immersive fantasy involves a secondary world that is “impervious to knowledge of an outside reality”. That outside reality being Earth. Basically, it avoids direct reference to Earth in the narrative. The Malazan series is a strong example of immersive fantasy.
Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon inhabits a twilight zone somewhere between immersive fantasy and portal fantasy. It is a secondary world in which the Earth does not exist, and yet it makes a great deal of references and allusions to Earth history and culture. You can clearly see the analogues to Arabic and Turkish culture, as well as to Islam. The Islam connection is particularly direct.
This style of fantasy has its advantages. It’s easier for a reader to get into. They have places of references, and a great deal of knowledge and sentiment that allows them to understand the setting and sometimes even the characters.
However, it has some disadvantages, as well, and these were pretty relevant to my response to the book. There’s a tradeoff to be made between difficulty of reading and depth of world-building, and finding the perfect balance can be tough. (I want to be very clear that this post is not about cultural appropriation. It is about methods and techniques of world-bulding, and how each style has its pitfalls.) Throne lands solidly in the very relatable, less deep quadrant.
A major problem I had with the world-building and characterization of the novel was that I felt the middle-eastern setting was somewhat superficial. And I mean that in the literal sense of being only on the surface.
For example, Adoulla made references to scripture in his magic, and Raseed is classified as a “dervish”. But beyond the basic middle-eastern flavor many Western readers associate with those words, they didn’t have a great deal of effect on the characters. Raseed is a sword-weilding prodigy, is a bit naive and strait-laced, and has a single, short-lived, relatively lacking-in-tension confrontation with some “allies”. But you never really learn what effect on his character his childhood in the Order has. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be one, at least based on the events in this first novel–perhaps it changes later.
The politics and culture of the city suffer a similar shallowness. The “Khalif” behaves and is portrayed as a fairly standard Grand Duke/Prince/King character. Despite the existence of an Islam-like religion in the world of the story, you never see any real evidence beyond Adoulla and Raseed playing out their grizzled mentor/innocent apprentice relationship. There are some few details, such as Adoulla’s love of cardamom tea, and a general lac of alcoholic beverages. However, these are few and far between.
It’s a fair argument to make that Western European fantasy follows similar patterns, and suffers from similar failures. Much high and heroic fantasy uses similar world-building techniques, and relies on references to Earth cultures to create its setting. There’s no reason non-Western settings should be required by default to have superior world-building.
And certainly the methods involved make things easier for the reader and writer. It can be hard to orient oneself in a truly secondary world(immersive) fantasy. Creating a fully realized original world is a challenge for both writers and readers. And many readers are more interested in an epic quest or back-alley battle than in exploring secondary worlds. That’s a perfectly valid approach to reading fantasy. And writing it.
Throne is a heroic fantasy/sword & sorcery homage, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in that. It is most often epic fantasies in which the truly immersive fantasy is found (although that’s descriptive, not prescriptive). It is not a terrible book, and the market loves such works. There is a great deal to enjoy in the story, including the dilemmas of the characters. It is completely possible to see the flaws in a work and still enjoy it. And that is a good description of how I felt about this book.