by Anthony Perconti
Saladin Ahmed’s 2012 collection, Engraved on the Eye consists of eight short stories that range the gamut of imaginative fiction. Ahmed has a deep understanding and appreciation of the various types of genre fiction; this collection showcases his talent as a wordsmith across multiple story forms.
If post-collapse cyberpunk is your bag, “The Faithful Soldier, Prompted” relates the journey of ex- soldier Ali, from Free Beirut to Old Cairo. He is being prompted through wetware implants for the purpose of finding a cure for his ailing wife, Lubna. The twist is that Ali is unsure whether the wetware is malfunctioning, or whether he is being shepherded by the voice of God upon this path. The period piece, “General Akmed’s Revenge?” takes place in 1986 Hollywood on the set of the D list action film, Desert Rangers 2. Muhammad Mattawa is an immigrant who has landed the part of nefarious and stereotypical General Akmed, whose lines include the subtle, “Today we destrrroy Amerrrica!”(1) Muhammad is having a difficult time assimilating to life in the United States. He feels that he is trapped inside a video game; like Mario, jumping obstacles and monsters until he stumbles into a lava pit, bereft of any extra lives.
While on set, when handling a prop bronze bowl, Muhammad notices that beneath the cheap gold paint are phrases etched in archaic Arabic. When he speaks the words, he releases a Jinn from its imprisonment that grants him one wish. The story is left on an open ended note and the reader is left to their own devices concerning Muhammad’s wish (and truth be told, his mental state as well).
“Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela” is a historical fantasy set during the Islamic Golden Age. A nameless physician who is in exile from the Caliph’s court goes to treat an old man outside the village of Beit Zujaaj. When the doctor visits the old man’s hovel (the Abdel Jameela of the title), he discovers its supernatural origin and that the traits of mercy and love transcend mankind. The Weird Western “Mister Hadj’s Sunset Ride” concerns two bounty hunters who are on the trail of the depraved Parson Lucifer gang. One of the bounty hunters, Mr. Hadj, a man from the Old Country, has the knack of stone singing – a type of sorcery which allows him to manipulate the earth. Parson Lucifer is a warlock who has reanimated his youngest son, aptly named Shambles, by means of a ‘Christian hex’ (think Lazarus by way of Romero). By his own (twisted) account, Lucifer is doing God’s work; “Every man and every child must play his part. I ravage so that our Lord Christ can heal.”(2)
“Judgment of Swords and Souls” is the story of seventeen-year-old Layla, Lodge of God resident and newly promoted dervish – a holy warrior with augmented abilities. Layla is at the epicenter of a factional division within the institution due to the fact that she chooses to wrap her sword scabbard in her departed mother’s red silk scarf. Red is the color of the Traitorous Angel and while it is not explicitly forbidden in the Heavenly Chapters to don the color, a faction of fundamentalist sheikhs (or as Ahmed phrases it, shayks) want Layla to discard the item. The members who back Layla in wearing the color take a more open approach in their interpretation of scriptures. She and her teacher, Shaykh Rustaam, are forced to sit in tribunal, where they are to be contested via trial by combat and spiritual endurance by the opposing faction, hence the story’s title. As these things go, the competition uses dirty tricks to ensure that they maintain the upper hand, and by the tales end, Layla loses everyone she holds dear. She takes a bloody toll on the treacherous shayks and escapes with only her life and her forked dervish blade.
This book in essence acts as Ahmed’s demo reel
Now an exile, Layla wanders Abassen, living by her wits and her sword arm. Ahmed spins a great origin story in “Judgment of Swords and Souls”. I certainly hope he continues to write further exploits of Layla, the fallen dervish across the Crescent Moon Kingdoms. It has the potential to be a great swords and sorcery series that contains all the right elements: a competent yet damaged protagonist forging her path in an Arabian Nights flavored world.
The second Crescent Moon Kingdoms tale, “Where Virtue Lives”, serves as a prequel to Ahmed’s 2012 debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon. The action takes place in Dhamsawaat, the King of Cities and the Jewel of Abassen. Raseed bas Raseed, (another) dervish is sent to the city by High Shaykh Aalli (who incidentally is Layla’s granduncle) to study under the tutelage of Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the best (and last) ghul hunter in all of Dhamsawaat. As fitting of his station, Raseed is a young man that fights like a whirlwind with his forked sword, but due to his myopic upbringing in the Lodge of God, views the city and its inhabitants as wicked and sinful. When the dervish finally catches up to Makhslood, he locates him in a house of ill repute, in conversation with the middle-aged madam – the doctor’s occasional lover and seller of information, Miri of the Hundred Ears. Makhslood needs information concerning the whereabouts of a red riverboat with eyes painted on its prow. The doctor is working a case involving a friend’s younger cousin’s kidnapped bride. The woman was dragged away by red-eyed, leech-mouthed water ghuls. Adoulla Makhslood has been defending the city, doing God’s work for forty years, clad in his enchanted, moon white kaftan and speaking his words of power. Yet for all this, he is a bald, long nosed, loud, flatulent, old, fat man who loves food and women. He is the exact opposite of the young, ascetic, intolerant and soft spoken dervish.
At first, Raseed is incredulous that the High Shaykh thinks so highly of this slovenly specimen of a man. “The name of Shaykh Aalli goes far indeed with me, boy. You may accompany me for now. But we’re not in a holy man’s parable. We’re trying to save a poor girl’s life and keep from getting ourselves killed. God’s gifts and my own study have given me useful powers. But I’ll kick a man in his fig-sack if need be, make no mistake.”(3) The men make their way to the Low Bridge of Boats, where they are set upon by water ghuls, where much slashing and sorcerous burning ensues
The pair is then attacked by Ushra, a woman versed in knot-blowing magic and during the conflict Raseed is captured. At the denouement, it is revealed that Zoud, master of the red boat is the sorcerer responsible for the kidnappings and murder of several young women (he is a collector of brides). The final showdown has our heroes squaring off against Zoud’s bodyguard, a berserk Cyclops. The story ends on a happy note; the young lovers are reunited and Doctor Makhslood agrees to extend Raseed’s apprenticeship. Due to the cosmopolitan nature of Dhamsawaat, coupled with the fact that the two protagonists are each other’s direct opposite, a comparison can be made to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series set in the bustling metropolis of Lankhmar. While I think it fair to draw parallels between the two settings, I don’t think this is valid concerning the heroes. Makhslood and Raseed remind me of a swords and sorcery version of Oscar and Felix, from Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, rather than Leiber’s pair of rogues. They are constantly bickering and always disapproving of the other’s mannerisms, but as this story illustrates, when it comes to protecting the innocent and taking down malevolent supernatural threats, this odd couple are a matched pair.
Ahmed represents the richness of his cultural heritage in most of his stories. Many of his characters come from the Islamic world and are non-European. This bit of cultural diversity is a positive development in including people that have been under- or misrepresented within the confines of traditional genre fiction. But at day’s end, Saladin Ahmed is first and foremost, a talented storyteller that engages the reader to keep turning those pages. Swords and sorcery fiction is well represented in this collection, of which two of the stories are set in the author’s Crescent Moon Kingdoms.
With regards to the price point for Engraved on the Eye, Saladin Ahmed is taking a reasonable business risk. The Kindle e-book price is $0.00. This book, in essence, acts as Ahmed’s demo reel, highlighting his prodigious skills as a writer across a variety of genres. Obviously, this title is not meant to make a profit. Its purpose is twofold; first and foremost, the stories in this collection are meant to entertain the reader. On that front, Saladin Ahmed knocks it out of the park; the eight tales are exciting, thought-provoking and well constructed. The second purpose goes back to that reasonable business risk. Or to state it a different way, the first taste is always free. After finishing this e-book, I immediately ordered Ahmed’s full length, Throne of the Crescent Moon. I was not disappointed. The first few chapters of the book engage in the heavy lifting of setting up characterization and some prerequisite world-building. Once that’s established, the plot of the novel accelerates at a rapid clip. Throne takes place in and around
Dhamsawaat, a few years after the events chronicled in “Where Virtue Lives”. The book relates the further adventures of Makhslood and Raseed and introduces a supporting cast of characters along with greater supernatural threats, the debonair Falcon Prince and political revolution in the streets.
In this current climate in which the subgenre of Grimdark is all the rage, Saladin Ahmed presents readers with stories that are brimming with a sense of hope. The consistent red line in all these tales is the concept of loyalty. Be it to the memory of a deceased mother, one’s religious convictions, an ailing spouse, ones freely given word, or the city and neighborhood that a character grew up in. The individuals that populate Engraved on the Eye and Throne may not always act heroically, but all of them endeavor to be loyal to their given causes (lost or otherwise). And fundamentally, the same is true of us; far from perfect, sometimes failing, yet continually striving towards our individual goals which give our lives meaning.
- Ahmed, Saladin. Engraved on the Eye. Ridan Publishing, 2012. Kindle E-Book Location 1020 of 1773-58%