No tea, please: Pace and Plot in Throne of the Crescent Moon

The long break is over…ish. And it’s thus entirely appropriate that this newest post covers a matter that weighs heavily on my mind. Pacing.

Recently finished (quickly) Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. It’s an engaging read, not only because it eschews the Eurocentric medievalism of a lot of Fantasy Works and instead establishes itself firmly in a setting inspired by Arabic culture. The worldbuilding shines, with Ahmed having plainly researched heavily to provide all sorts of tiny pieces of taste, flavour, texture and sound to enrich his story’s setting. This is married to some interesting characters, witty dialogue and some wonderfully horrible monsters.  The result is immersion that doesn’t dissipate through the entire course of the narrative, which is a great achievement in itself. The plot is relatively straightforward, even traditional, but is told with craft, skill, humour and care. The heroism feels genuine, even when the heroes are deeply flawed human beings, with irascibility, impatience and regret.

But the thing that really jumped out at me for this novel was the perfect speed at which the story unfurled. Each scene moves the story forward briskly, without dragging the reader to the point of stumbling, logically moving on to the next scene, the next scene and the next scene. The narrative slows down for occasional contemplation, but never to the point of either indecision or navel gazing.

Even when characters are contemplating their own mortality, the continuation of their line or the regrets that old age confers on missed opportunities, it is always in the context of doing something. This makes the characters active participants in their world, and ensures that the flow of the narrative does not stutter as they either stare around wondering what to do next or have an unlikely deus ex machina descend to provide the next prod forward.

One of my own novel first drafts (not this novel, but one thankfully lost to time) elicited this comment from an old writer friend who had agreed to read it:

“There are too many cups of tea.”

This was a criticism not of the beverage but that I was overusing the cup of tea as a mechanism to place two characters in a static, social place and make them discuss what the plot demanded they talk about. In other words, I was stopping the characters doing anything else so I could get them to spout some dialogue and emote. If the plot requires a cup of tea or a drink, that’s a different matter. (Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, for example has one very long cup of tea upon which the entire plot of the film hinges).

In Ahmed’s book, there are only a couple of cups of (cardamom) tea, and both serve the plot  rather than act as wall-hooks to hold plot-shaped things. Each scene in the book serves the purpose of driving the reader’s understanding of what is happening, what has happened and what is likely to happen often along multiple plot axes.

The other two books that I hold up as the shining stars of pacing are Brian Moore’s The Statement and <sigh> Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

No, come back… I’m serious.

Both books race along, both driven by “chases” of one manner or another. Even if they’re delving into crackpot theories about the basis of Christianity (oops, spoiler) or the long flight from justice of a Vichy war criminal, both are doing so whilst constantly their characters on the move, trying to do things, to achieve objectives, to survive.This provides each with a predictable drive as well as an unpredictable rhythm (as individual obstacles, threats are a jolt to the character’s attempt to keep moving).

Ahmed’s book lacks this central driving mechanic, and a time-sensitive prod to character action doesn’t appear until well into the book, by which time the characters are already invested heavily in the plot. This makes the pacing even more of an achievement.

All three books (Moore’s, Brown’s and Ahmed’s) utilise overlapping multiple character perspectives in order to ensure consistent momentum. Interleaving character perspectives is an excellent tool to maintain the pace of a book. Like a receiving relay runner, the passing of the baton of reader attention is accompanied by a burst of speed onwards.

As I mentioned earlier, this was one of the points in favour of the otherwise-flawed Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, in that it was a far shorter book than its length would indicate, as you weren’t forced to shift pacing gears in between chapters.

This is explicitly not to place a book’s characters in a position of power within the novel, allowing the plot to unroll as their will dictates. With the possible exception of villain protagonists, I find stories where the protagonist is in control of events unutterably dull. If there is no challenge to a character, either physically, socially or psychologically, then it can be a trial to really give a damn about what happens to them.

Throne of the Crescent Moon enjoyably avoids this, placing its characters in peril enough to be engaging whilst not constantly throwing lethal threats at them. However, the constant issuing of challenges to the characters, and in making his characters actively and purposely respond to them provides an evenness to the flow of the novel which I can only hope to emulate.

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