The Big Idea: Saladin Ahmed

Influences aren’t just things as a writer that you pull from — they can also be things that you push against. And sometimes you do both at once. Saladin Ahmed knows about this; in his widely acclaimed debut Throne of the Crescent Moon (which has garnered starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews) he’s looked at his favorite works both as inspiration and things to rebel against. What are those works, and what are their qualities and flaws, as Ahmed sees them? He’s here to tell you.


The Big Idea behind Throne of the Crescent Moon had to do with writing something that was both an homage and a response to the heroic fantasy I grew up reading and watching. I was born in post-race riots Detroit at the beginning of the slow social and economic meltdown of that city. I grew up down the street, in the working-class Arab American enclave of Dearborn, MI. My Dad was a union activist and community organizer who instilled in me pride in my Arab heritage and a strong sense of social justice, but also a deep love for fantasy and science fiction.

Fast forward 30 years, and these things are still a big part of my consciousness. Sometimes, over the years, they’ve bumped up against each other, and Throne of the Crescent Moon is my first attempt to…transcribe the sound of that bumping, if that makes any sense.

But concrete examples are sometimes more useful than such abstraction – voila!

– I love Arya Stark and Tyrion Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire. But I don’t like that royalty and nobles – or royals and nobles in disguise – are almost always the main POV heroes in fantasy. So my characters are mostly lowborn.

– I love the Aiel from The Wheel of Time (and that Rand is one by blood!). But I don’t like that Fantasyland’s pseudo-Arabs are usually depicted in a marginalizing manner. So I put the pseudo-Middle East at the center of my series.

– I love Sturm Brightblade from Dragonlance . But I don’t like that fantasy novels have tended to depict holy warriors/paladins as noble and inspiring when wearing pseudo-European garb but scary when wearing pseudo-Muslim garb.

– I love Star Wars (indulge me, please, by calling it fantasy), but I don’t like the way youth and self-discovery are so often the focus on fantasy plots. So I wrote a 60-something main character who damn well knows who he is – and just wants the world to leave him the hell alone.

– I love Aragorn… But I don’t like the way heroic fantasy celebrates hereditary power so uncritically. So I slapped my heroes in the middle of a plot to usurp a dynasty.

And so on. Throne of the Crescent Moon is, in a sense, a tightrope walk. Might be I’ve fallen a few times, but I hope I’ve taken some entertaining – maybe even thrilling – steps along the way.


Throne of the Crescent Moon: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

41 Comments on “The Big Idea: Saladin Ahmed”

  1. I keep seeing this book around the web but it wasn’t until reading Saladin’s description of how he wanted to dodge fantasy stereotypes that I went and put it in my queue. Thanks.

  2. Sturm … that brings back memories. I’ll have to look for Sturm a bit more closely along the rest of the way. I’ve been listening to the audiobook of this and it’s as described here, “both an homage and a response to heroic fantasy”. Looking forward to settling in over the next couple of days to finish it.

  3. Thanks for the intro! One of my favorite literary characters is Lazarus Long, who is also a crotchety old man with his own ideas about how the world works, I think I might enjoy a little curmudgeoneity in Adoulla. And I think we all get a little bored with stereotypical medieval fantasy at times… I loved the Belgariad when I first read it as a teenager… couldn’t finish it a second time as a more mature reader. Come to think of it… your description so far sounds like the Anti-Belgariad.

    This goes on the “to read” pile. Thanks!

  4. This sounds really good. I like the concept and enjoyed the excerpt. Unfortunately, it seems not yet to be available on Kindle in the UK – if Mr Ahmed is reading this, can you tell us if it will be released in this benighted isle?

  5. I have to write my review but I had the privilege to read an ARC of Throne of the Crescent Moon.

    As Jonathan Strahan said, if you have the slightest interested in Sword and Sorcery, go and get yourself a copy of Throne. You will be glad you did.

  6. I’m looking forward to starting this. It’s near the top of my TBR pile. It caught my eye in the places I look for new books, and with some of the buzz it’s been getting.

  7. Yes, exactly! That near ubiquitous main character, that young, male hick coming into his powers … I simply can’t stand that anymore. Sure, I ate that up when I was twelve, but I’m not so interested in being force fed it at thirty-seven.

    Throne was already on my list, but this will bump it up a few notches.

  8. Purchased! This looks like it will be well worth my time.

    Let’s hope no one jumps in to offer bon mots on your heritage or views.

  9. I like your thinking about the hereditary monarchy, Saladin. Often, when I’m reading epic fantasy, I find myself wondering why I should give a shit about putting the rightful heir on the throne. So far, the only fantasy I’ve seen deal with this adequately is Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy. (There may be others that I’ve missed.)

  10. Wow – the Aiel as pseudo-Arabs … I always thought they were more patterned after Native Americans. Interesting. I suspect Ahmed’s remark here will influence my perspective, next time I read WoT.

  11. This sounds exactly like the type of book I want to read. Heck, it sounds a lot like the kind of book I want to write!

    One of my favourite DnD settings growing up was Al Qadim. Heck, I still have most of the books lying around. Throne of the Crescent Moon sounds like a nice trip to a similar world.

  12. Got it on hold at my library. 8) It’s nice to see fantasy literature that isn’t Eurocentric (said the woman who writes about Greek gods lol)

  13. old aggie, I’m sure Robert Jordan had a lot of influences on his Aiel. I always saw the Arabness due to their similarity to the Fremen of Dune and perhaps the Zulu of the Zulu Wars. Plus, the Aiel live in a desert. :)

  14. I’ve been on the fence whether or not to pick this up or not, but I think I’ve been convinced.

  15. This is totally selling me on the book. Or, I mean, it would be, if I hadn’t finished buying a copy an hour ago. But it’s reminding me to bump it further up my to-read pile, too.

  16. I have to say: I usually skim the Big Idea columns. This one made me stop, read the middle, go back and read from the beginning and add to my TBR list.

    Part of why I stay away from a lot of fantasy is because of the tidbits Ahmed lists. I greatly enjoy originaly stories and tire when those become the tropes to be done and redone and redone until they fall apart.

    Looking forward to it!

  17. Just bought it for my Kindle! John, thanks for making space on your blog for The Big Idea. I love getting introduced to interesting writers that might otherwise get lost in the noise.

  18. So glad to find another fantasy novel that isn’t: a) urban fantasy; or b) the pseudo-Mediaeval European type! Recently read Desert of Souls by Howard A. Jones, which I truly enjoyed & happily recommend. I hope this one is as good!

  19. I’ve been looking forward to this since late last year, and the Big Idea piece revived my excitement about this book. Sturm is what did it; I loved him too from back in the day.

  20. My only bon mot here is that as a little kid, my idea of a dashing fantasy hero was Sinbad. So I will be buying the shiz out of this book.

  21. One main advantage of moving to ebooks is that there is no chance that the TBR pile is going to fall over and crush me when I’m sleeping.

    Because that iPile just got a little deeper.

    I have a question for Mr. Ahmed: Was there any pressure on you to change your name for marketing reasons? I’d hope that we are beyond that sort of thing (although: J K Rowling), but Arab names on the F&SF shelves are few and far between.

  22. Jon Strahan said he loved it in the last Coode St podcast, and said it was like Michael Shae’s Nifft the Lean, whatever that is.

  23. I’m really happy to see The Big Idea feature Saladin Ahmed. I read some of his works last year while reading up on the candidates for the Campbell and Hugo awards, and I enjoyed his work thoroughly. This book is on my to-get list.

  24. Hi Folks

    Very sorry to be abrupt here – I’m in transit as this is running. Thanks a ton to John for having me and to all of you for reading!

    A couple of quick answers:

    -Sooz: I’m afraid all I can say about UK editions for now is ‘there may well be news soon,’ which I know isn’t helpful. Sorry.

    – AlanM: I think there are some systemic problems with racism in the publishing industry, just as there are in pretty much all facets of our society. But I never felt pressure to make my name ‘safer.’ And I had an awesome fanboy moment when George RR Martin was like ‘You have a unique name AND your last name starts with ‘A’ so you’ll be at the top of the shelf, you lucky bastard.’ So – WIN!

    Will be less scarce tomorrow, so please do fire away if y’all have any other questions!

  25. @ David H.

    old aggie, I’m sure Robert Jordan had a lot of influences on his Aiel. I always saw the Arabness due to their similarity to the Fremen of Dune and perhaps the Zulu of the Zulu Wars.

    I haven’t read Jordan – or much swords & sorcery at all save ancient and Arthurian mythology – but one thing that I liked about Dune was that the explicitly Islamic/Buddhist-descended Zensunni Fremen actually win against the European-style Empire, even though there weren’t exactly any unambiguous heroes in the story.

    @ Saladin

    But I never felt pressure to make my name ‘safer.’ And I had an awesome fanboy moment when George RR Martin was like ‘You have a unique name AND your last name starts with ‘A’ so you’ll be at the top of the shelf, you lucky bastard.’ So – WIN!

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m a lot more likely to crack open a book in the bookstore if the author’s name is less common (and the cover art is that freakin’ cool). And even though Saladin is a pretty common surname, it stands out from most authors to be found the shelves of English-language bookstores.

  26. On reserve at my library, sounds great!

    For those interested in fantasy with older male leads, try Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy (Ingold is an elderly, exhausted wizard) or Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife quartology (Dag is in his 60s and has one hand). Is there a better term for a series of 4?

  27. @ Anne

    Is there a better term for a series of 4?

    AFAIK, the conventional term in quartet, but I think quartology sounds more accurate.

  28. I was inspired to purchase this based in large part on this Big Idea piece and just finished it. I found it a very compelling read from beginning to end and highly recommend it.

  29. Soybd interesting. The dislikes above pretty closely match why I’ve loved Glen Cook so much over the years. Try the Dread Empire series for a more key Middle eastern influence, or Black Company for the low level grunts and old protagonists…

    I’ll definitely give this book a try…

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