There have only been a few notable fantasy novels that touch on an Arab/Middle-Eastern theme and/or setting, and even fewer of those play off of explicitly Islamic cultural ideas, with most reaching for pre-Islamic cultural elements where they attempt them at all. Several of the treatments that do come to mind are…unfortunate in the racial and cultural stereotypes they choose to employ. Saladin Ahmed set out to write a novel that tells that same sort of quest story that he and all modern fantasy readers grew up with, but in a world where the heroes, as I heard him say something similar once, looked like him, and had families like his, and who grew up with the same kind of stories he did.
It’s an ensemble cast, but the core of the story revolves around an unusual protagonist, a man of late middle years, with more fat to his frame than bulk, and all the aches and pains one would expect from a man who had spent his life hunting demons and ghuls (monsters summoned using human sacrifice and dark rites), for that is the profession of Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last true devotee of the Ghul Hunter tradition. Accompanied by a devout young dervish learning about the world and fighting alongside Adoulla while he learns about the world (in all its evils and magics), the pair find themselves drawn into a web of dark sorcery and conspiracy that threatens the entirety of Adoulla’s beloved city of Dhamsawaat and perhaps all the world.
I really enjoyed this book, and expect great things from Ahmed in the future, but I think his talent is still developing and not quite gelled with this book. The dialog is occasionally stiff, and sometimes the character dynamics feel a bit too closely hewn to traditional D&D-style adventurer roles. That said, I really liked the story he told and the novel to the genre setting, and more stories where the protagonists aren’t fit young white men are always welcome, AFAIC. If I didn’t like Redshirts just a little bit better, this definitely would have gotten my Hugo vote.