Engraved on the Eye is a collection of short fiction by Saladin Ahmed. There’s a couple of stories set in the same world as his novel (Throne of the Crescent Moon). However, there’s also several pieces set outside of that world, covering a broad span of locales and ideas.
The first story in the collection, ‘Where Virtue Lives’ is set prior to the opening of Throne of the Crescent Moon, and sets out how the protagonists of that tale first met. Looking at the world from both characters perspectives, the narrative accentuates the differences between them very well. The old, cynical Doctor-and-Demon-Hunter stands as a stark contrast to the sword wielding, morally certain dervish. The clashes between their worldviews are evident in this short piece, and in fact it’s the author’s portrayal of these quiet conflicts that makes the text so strong. That said, the conclusion of the tale also indicates to us why the two of them are working together later in their narrative strand – whilst the conflicts between them are many and varied, Ahmed shows us that as a gestalt, the two are stronger than the sum of their parts – performing together what neither could do alone, and being greater thereby. It’s an interesting tale, and has a few things to say about comparative morality – but it’s also a solid adventure story.
Next, there’s ‘The Hooves and Hovel of Abdel Jamela’, an exploration of how a court physician, exiled to a distant village, deals with a rather unusual request for aid. Ahmed evokes an intriguing world here, one where the supernatural is at the margins, feeling out of sight, but perhaps not out of mind. The stumbling physician is brought to life by a passion expertly portrayed, and a duty which is never explicitly stated, but lives in the actions of the narrative. The narrative has an element of whimsy to it, a feeling of quiet truth which was a joy to read.
‘Judgement of Swords and Souls’ takes us back into the world of ‘Throne of the Crescent Moon’. And into the environment of the dervishes – sword wielding fanatics with incredible focus. Ahmed gives us a focus in Layla bas Layla, a rare female recruit to the dervishes, and one of their best. She has to deal with aligning her personal moral code to what exists in the dervish institutions, and Ahmed does an excellent job of portraying her troubled state of mine whilst trying to do so. There’s also more than a few swordfights, evidence that the author can sit fast-paced action alongside exploration of a personal dilemma. The fusion of these two elements works perfectly, and makes for a compelling story – by the end, I definitely wanted to hear more of the protagonists’ adventures.
‘Doctor Diablo Goes Through The Motions’ is a piece which works on several levels. On the one hand, it’s taken from the viewpoint of a supervillain. He’s weary, cynical, and his internal monologue is both derisive and scathingly, hilariously, sarcastic about his fellow travellers in villainy. It’s a pleasure to read this view, and it certainly made me chuckle. But underneath this, there’s the character’s plan to reform prisons, an examination of how prejudice places people into a system from which there’s no escape – and the opportunity for a nuanced discussion arises out of the short prose, giving it an intriguing layer of nuance.
‘General Akmed’s Revenge’ , by contrast, carries a quieter payload of the fantastical. It’s effects are largely felt in the edges of the protagonist’s worldview, rather than more overtly. But the narrative, one of acceptance and ostracism in America, feels like a scalpel taken to the issue of race relations in the US. It’s a piece of sharp prose, given a weight of experience, and the voice of the protagonist feels raw and honest. It was in some ways a difficult read, and certainly a complex one – but also fundamentally honest, and captivating.
‘Mister Hadj’s Sunset Ride’ blends the familiar tropes of the US western with something of a more Arabesque nature. There’s a story here about a journey to deal with an outlaw and his unpleasant sons. It’s a good story, too. You can feel the hammer of the sun on hardpan, the slow creak of horses on the move across a wilderness. But there’s also a story about identity, the more culturally assimilated narrator working alongside a member of the preceding generation. Ahmed already negotiated this terrain in the preceding story, but here it’s done more subtly – in the asides the narrator throws in, the way actions of the older man throw him from his stride. It’s lovely to read – and the supernatural elements, which are finely laced throughout the story, tie these elements together into a cohesive whole.
‘The Faithful Soldier, Prompted’ takes us out of the subtly fantastical, and into a near future Egypt, shattered by a war of ideology. There’s some great ideas fluttering in the background here – I particularly enjoyed the idea of crusaders against credit interest. The Cairo seen briefly in the story is alive, but clearly battered, if not broken, and Ahmed does a great job of making the city feel lived in. At core though, this is a personal story, of a man on a journey which he has undertaken for the sake of love. His torments, trials and tribulations are brought to live, and the reader empathises and agonises alongside him. It lacks something of the environmental flavour of previous stories, but has a sense of the personal, of being genuine, which made it a great read.
‘Iron Eyes and the Watered Down World’, the final story, is a bit of an odd one. It begins with three companions, adventurers in a fantasy world – each with their own problems, supporting the others. And each of those characters has something about them, an aura of weariness, somehow tied to a core of vitality, which made me keep turning pages (that one of them is a murderous rabbit-woman is a bonus). The plot rumbles along nicely, and slowly the kind of story that is being told changes. This story works both as a straightforward adventure, and as a meditation on family, and was quite enjoyable on both levels.
Overall, Engraved on the Eye is a superb collection of Ahmed’s work. There’s a range of genres approached here, and the stories aren’t afraid to ask big questions in between the personal, or even between swordfights. The voice at play here is a confident, compelling one, and the collection as a whole was a pleasure to read.