Throne of the Crescent Moon is the best fantasy swashbuckler of the year so far

Medieval fantasy stories about wizards and monsters are usually set in the epic countryside. But one of the many welcome tweaks to the genre in Saladin Ahmed's debut novel Throne of the Crescent Moon is that its magical showdowns take place in a medieval city. And not just some backwater city, either — Dhamsawaat is a giant, complicated, politically volatile metropolis that's like a cross between historic Baghdad and an Arabian fairy tale.

Ahmed spins a seriously engaging adventure tale about an old sorcerer who pledges to defeat evil one last time before marrying the prostitute he's loved for decades. But he can't complete his mission without help from old friends, and a shape shifter who's developed a crush on his Dervish apprentice. If you love smart escapism, don't miss out on this book.

Adoulla has spent his life using magic to defeat ghuls, the zombie-like creatures that sorcerers use to do their bidding. As Throne of the Crescent Moon opens, however, he's ready to retire. He's trained his apprentice, the morally rigid but talented Dervish Raseed. He's got a nice house full of books in the city he loves, a favorite tea house where he can get his cardamom tea, and a girlfriend he thinks he might win back one day (currently she's pissed at him). But then his girlfriend's nephew shows up in town with a spine-chilling tale of ghul hordes slaughtering villages. Looks like Adoulla is going to have to do one last job.

But this job turns out to be, as you might guess, a lot crazier than he ever expected. Partly that's because the ghuls he and Raseed encounter are bigger and tougher than any he's seen before. And partly that's because these ghuls turn out to be the bleeding edge of a supernatural coup that could put the city of Dhamsawaat in the thrall of ancient evil. Making things even more complicated is the fact that another coup is also in the works, from a populist thief who promises to liberate the city's poor and downtrodden from its current elitist Khalif. Magic, in Ahmed's world, is often coopted by politics.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is the best fantasy swashbuckler of the year so far

One of the many pleasures of Throne of the Crescent Moon — aside from Ahmed's skill at making his monster fights feel positively cinematic — are all the realistic little details of life in a city riddled with magic. Adoulla lives in the poor Scholar's Quarter, and every week the area is clouded with the stench of the palace tannery miles away. The Khalif's magicians use their powers to pipe the stink to the poor part of town so that the palace always smells like flowers. And then there's the basic problem of traffic in a walled city whose winding streets are packed with every kind of transport, from pedestrians and donkeys to rickshaws and carriages. When our heroes must rush to the aid of people outside the city, their biggest obstacle is getting past the traffic jam at the city gates.

Ahmed's characters, too, are a terrific blend of the realistic and the awesomely magical. Raseed may be a complete ninja when it comes to fighting and using his double sword, but he's also a young man torn between religious fervor and hormones. Meanwhile, Adoulla is the older and wiser man, but he's been in love with a (successful and brainy) sex worker for years, loves to party, and is always razzing his younger associate about getting laid. Their friends are magicians, but are also an old married couple trying to figure out where to retire. Perhaps the most interesting character is Zamia, a companion they meet during their first ghul dustup, who is an angry young woman mourning the loss of her tribe — oh and also, she can turn into a superpowered lion.

As a kid I loved watching Ray Harryhausen classics like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, with their fighting skeletons and stop-motion monsters — and reading Ahmed's novel gave me that same sense of swashbuckling mythos mania. What really makes this book shine, however, are the characters and utterly riveting worldbuilding. By the end, you might even find yourself a little choked up after the dust settles. You'll love the people you meet in Throne of the Crescent Moon that much. I can't wait to see what Ahmed will write next.

You can grab a copy of Throne of the Crescent Moon via Amazon or your favorite bookseller.

Want to read an excerpt? We've got one right here.