Saladin Ahmed’s first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is quite good. A quick, vigorous plot, depth of characterization, and excellent worldbuilding.
There are a few points I want to discuss.
The first is the fundamental presumption in the universe of the story that service is a paramount good. Not freedom or personal autonomy, not wealth or prestige, not power or knowledge. All of those things are valued, certainly — but they are not presumed to be good. The worst thing the villains in the book do — worse, as far as I can tell, than stealing souls or flaying people — is perverting the nature of service.
I won’t say that this is the only SF/F book I’ve ever read that treats serving others in this way. But I’m having trouble thinking of them right now. Some aspects of the Vorkosigan books by Bujold, perhaps. And that service is couched in terms of fealty, of oaths given and accepted, in a language of mutual benefit. Throne of the Crescent Moon doesn’t specify or limit service in those ways. One serves others because … because it’s the right, good, holy, and proper thing for a decent human being to do.
The second thing I want to mention is exhaustion. Tiredness. A sense of the weary. The older I get, the more cumulative months of my life have been spent in a state of chronic sleep deprivation, the more I appreciate stories that reflect being past the age of twenty-five.
Third — When I was a kid, reading the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (first edition) Dungeon Master’s Guide — the one with the giant efrit on the cover –I memorized most of the charts and table contained within. One such chart dealt with the effect of aging on stats. The chart — which I no longer have memorized — explained that as you grew older, your strength and dexterity decreased. This made sense to me. But it also said your wisdom would increase. This, I determined, was patent nonsense. At the age of fourteen I was as wise and knowledgeable as I was ever going to get, obviously.
Part of what I have learned since then is how the loss of STR and DEX and CON necessitates an increase in WIS. I can’t just stupidly go off and do things, relying on youth to give me an edge. Part of being older is knowing that things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, and mere anarchy is not only loosed up the world, it’s the natural state of things. The three laws of thermodynamics are you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game.
The wise person plans for this.
And older, middle-aged, adventurer — ghul hunter, or chemist, or what-have-you — has lived through enough things gone wrong to always have a backup plan. To have an enchantment in the pocket, a potion up the sleeve, an extra gold coin tucked into the sash. Part of fear, then, is running out of backup plans.
The other thing older characters understand is that death is real, and permanent.
I rather like all the older, cranky, wise people in Throne of the Crescent Moon.