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The God of Old Men: Religion, Age, and Throne of the Crescent Moon

Over the last few months, I’ve written a series of posts exploring genre fiction’s representation of the different identity valences discussed in Shawl & Ward’s Writing the Other. The posts for four of these six categories (race, orientation, sex/gender, and ability/disability) came relatively easily to me, but I’ve been at a loss about how to tackle the final two: religion and age. These are both extremely important identities for us to consider as authors and readers, but for me, the entry points seemed less obvious.

Then I read Saladin Ahmed‘s Throne of the Crescent Moon, and realized I could talk a bit about both topics in one post.

Ahmed’s book has received a lot of buzz in the SF/F community. It was nominated for (among other things) the Hugo and Nebula, and won the 2013 Locus Award for best first novel. It got a glowing review on io9, where Annalee Newitz described it as “the best fantasy swashbuckler of the year.” So I may be late to the party on this one, but I’m still going to add my voice to the chorus saying this book is both well-written and important.

Its main characters share some recognizable elements with classic fantasy archetypes: there’s the sage white-bearded wizard, the wild shapeshifter, the puritanical monk. And the story has all the elements of a classic adventure tale: romance! adventure! a world in peril! But these characters are also deeply embedded in a culture that’s very unlike the traditional fantasy world. Ahmed’s story takes place in the city of Dhamsawaat, in a culture whose inspiration comes not only from the magic of the Arabian Nights (there’s lots of talk of jinn, and the main monster-threat in the setting are ghuls) but from Muslim ritual and tradition.

The heroes of this book are religious one and all. The common belief is that their magic is a gift from God, and that the monsters they fight are created by those who draw power from “the Traitorous Angel.” The central character, the ghul hunter Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, works his magic with a combination of blessed herbs and foci and recitations of the sacred Names of God. The religion on display here clearly shares elements with Islam, just as the larger culture does with medieval Arabia. Since Ahmed himself is Arab-American and Muslim, some readers might say that “of course” these are elements he’d choose to incorporate into his storytelling, but it seems to me that most genre authors, regardless of background, don’t make a particular effort to incorporate religion into their stories in a positive way.

When Christianity analogues show up in fantasy realms, they tend to be portrayed as puritanical and/or authoritarian and almost-inevitably violent (think of the Children of the Light in Wheel of Time, or R’hllor in ASOIAF). Gods themselves tend to get slightly better treatment, when they actually put in an appearance on the page (NK Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy springs to mind here, as do Jacqueline Carey’s D’Angeline books). And polytheists generally come off better than monotheists (there’s the Seven Gods in Westeros, of course, and the numerous gods and goddesses capering through Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch books), maybe because for authors situated in the monotheism-heavy Western world, coming up with pantheons of deities feels freer than trying to invent a single overarching G/god. But regardless of where religion fits into the world, religious people tend to be firmly on the sidelines in genre fiction, and when they interact with the heroes it seems to be most often to get in their way. I suspect this reflects a perceived distinction between “religious people” and “consumers of genre fiction,” which, given the commotion from some evangelical Christians a few years back about Harry Potter, might be an easy mistake to make. But just as with other aspects of diversity in storytelling, I think religious characters are an important group to include in fiction. Whether the gods are “real” actors in the story or not, it’s worth considering that throughout most of human history, most people in most places have believed deeply in something bigger than themselves — and, of course, developing a religion (or religions) for your setting gives you an extra dimension for worldbuilding to seep into.

Throne of the Crescent Moon has gotten a lot of press for these aspects of its storytelling, and deservedly so. But what seems to be less widely discussed about the book — the part that I didn’t know before reading it — was that the protagonist, Adoulla, is over sixty years old. In his introductory scene, Adoulla enjoys a rare quiet morning drinking tea with a friend, reflecting on how he’s getting too old for the active, dangerous life of a ghul hunter.

“Adventure, you say? A fortnight ago I was face-to-face with a living bronze statue that was trying to kill me with an axe. An axe, Yehyeh!” He shook his head at his own wavering tea-reflection. “Threescore years, and still I’m getting involved in such madness. Why?” he asked, looking up.

Yehyeh shrugged. “Because God the All-Knowing made it so. You’ve faced such threats and worse before, my friend. You may look like the son of the bear who screwed the buzzard, but you’re the only real ghul hunter left in this whole damned-by-God city, O Great and Virtuous Doctor.”

There are certainly middle-aged and elderly people in genre stories, and not all of them play the role of the doddering mentor sitting quietly on the sidelines. There’s Gandalf, of course, and his spiritual descendant Albus Dumbledore; there are also characters like Colonel Tigh and Admiral Adama from Battlestar Galactica (whose actors were 54 and 56 when the series began), who were allowed to participate in action scenes, perform physical heroics and even (gasp!) form romantic and sexual relationships with NEW partners during the course of the show. And yet, none of these characters is the protagonist of his story (and these characters are all “he,” aren’t they?) in the way that Adoulla is. Adoulla is the first of the main characters we meet, and the one whose viewpoint closes the book. His body has an old man’s weaknesses, yet he also is a character with a lot left to give the world, including romantic love (with, wonder of wonders, a desirable woman close to his own age!)

Ahmed gives us five primary viewpoint characters in Throne of the Crescent Moon (each of the “band of heroes” gets at least a few chapters), and three of those are past the age of forty. I don’t remember the last book I’ve read that focused its narrative that way, particularly a book written by an author who hasn’t yet reached that age himself. I suspect that’s one of the reasons older characters are rare protagonists in genre fiction; if fantasy and science fiction are supposed to be escapist, the likely perception goes, relatively few people seek to “escape” into the rickety body of an elderly narrator. And yet, as we’ve discussed before, portraying the range of human experience in this dimension is important, too. Ahmed himself, in an interview quoted in the LA Times, put it this way: “My hero is 60-plus years old… That comes from the focus on age, and the wisdom that comes with age, in Arab culture. Maybe a 15-year-old is not who we need to follow around the whole time.”

His book demonstrates the truth of the statement. Throne of the Crescent Moon takes us on a comfortably familiar journey of magic and monsters, while overturning several core fantasy assumptions about where those stories live and who our guides through them can be. I’d recommend it, and I think we need more books like it from all quarters.

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4 Comments

  1. I’ve got a copy of Throne of the Crescent Moon and am planning to read it later this month. Glad to hear some more good things about it!

    I think religious characters can make interesting protagonists, or even a POV character in a cast of many. They tend to have a different way of seeing the world that isn’t usually explored in fantasy. I read both Fires of the Faithful (fantasy which explores religion) and Ship of Magic, the first in an epic fantasy trilogy which has both a religious POV character and an older (female) POV character. I’d recommend both books.

    I’ve really enjoyed this series!

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    • I agree that religious people tend to have a different perspective on the world than non-religious people, and that this perspective is one that tends to be underrepresented in fantasy. It reminds me of some sociological surveys I’ve encountered where people report that they are extremely likely to feel comfortable working with someone who has a different race or ethnic background than they do, but much more uncomfortable working with someone who has a different religious or political background. In some ways, I’d guess that asking a reader from the increasingly non-religious West to adopt the perspective of a religious person (particularly someone whose religion has easily-identifiable analogues in the real world, as is definitely the case in Ahmed’s book) might push them further out of their comfort zone than almost anything else we could do as authors.

      Thanks for the book recommendations — I will have to check them out!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      • The sociological surveys sound familiar. I guess it’s easier for people to accept differences such as appearance as long as underlying world view is the same.

        What I’ve also seen about books with religious protagonists is that people (if they haven’t read the book) will assume that the book’s out to push the religion on them.

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  2. I could definitely see people having the conversion fear with stories set in the “real world”; I suspect it’s a particularly pressing issue for authors writing in present-day settings, where it’d be easy to set the story to pushing a particular political or religious perspective. The conversion fear seems less likely to come up in alternate worlds, but I think ideology is still a HUGE thing for authors and readers to be aware of… I’ve definitely read alternative-universe stories where the author’s politics came through loud and clear.

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