***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: Another favorite book for me this year, A Creature of Moonlight is a well-written fantasy debut, with a strong character and an undercurrent of feminism.
Readalike: As I read A Creature of Moonlight, I was reminded again and again of Franny Billingsley's Chime and Well Wished. I mean, the main character, Marni, knits a vengeance from tendrils of moonlight, for goodness' sake, singing magic into it as she works. When the vengeance is finished, she lets it slip up her left sleeve and cling to her arm until she is ready to loose it on her betrayer. Romantic, flowery-style fantasy, complete with magical old women and possibly malevolent little beings of nature? Check! Lovely descriptions? Check! Obstinate female character who is also emotionally wounded? Check, and check! Hahn's prose is pretty darned nice, too, though not quite as lyrical as Billingsley's (whose is?!), but Hahn's work is somehow less...flaky than Billingsley's, which I appreciated.
The plot, so I won't forget it. Marni is living with her beloved Gramps in a small hut in a kingdom that has, for lack of a better term, a tree problem. The problem is that the forest is encroaching on human land, and has to be ruthlessly cut back on a daily basis. The trees (and the creatures inside the woods) also seem to lure young women on the cusp of adulthood, like a greenhouse full of sirens, and the women disappear forever once they venture inside.
Marni and her Gramps grow flowers for a living, although it becomes clear that Gramps was an important man in his previous life--which accounts for the occasional instances we see him advising nobles, and once, the king. We slowly learn that Marni's Gramps was the king himself, but he abdicated his throne for his son, to prevent his son from killing Marni as a baby, and to raise her full-time himself. It seems that Marni's mom ran off into the forest, fell in love with a dragon, got pregnant by him, and was one of the only young women to return from the woods, coming home to have her baby. The dragon sent the woods to fetch her, eating up farmland and occasionally making subjects go mad. The prince got more and more riled that his dad wasn't handling the situation properly, and killed Marni's mom, which did in fact temporarily halt the progression of the trees.
Marni is now almost a young woman herself, and she feels the pull of the woods in a fierce way. There is an old woman there who has tried to seduce her into the trees her whole life, teaching her to knit with wisps of smoke and the like as they sit on logs, letting her fly on the backs of phoenixes. Only the miserable thought of leaving her Gramps keeps her returning to the hut, and to the flowers she lovingly tends with something of a magical touch. Suitors are beginning to call, and we soon learn that it's because Marni is the princess, and the only heir to the throne, as her uncle and aunt have failed to conceive a child.
The Lord of Ontrei, Edgar, proposes marriage, promising to bring Marni to court and protect her, but Marni refuses. One day when she's out frolicking a little too long in the woods, almost forgetting herself there, she returns late at night to find her Gramps apparently dead and buried in the backyard, and Edgar waiting to give her the bad news. (Given Marni's personality, I thought she was quite gullible about this step. The Marni I know would have dug up the grave.)
She grows to actually like Edgar, and he is clearly happily surprised by how much he likes her. He alternates between trying to manipulate her and being genuinely enamored of her, which makes him a lovely gray character. Marni resists his marriage proposals at court, but is having trouble resisting the urge to kill the king with the vengeance she has finally figured out how to knit. And now she hears the call of the dragon, far away.
The forest starts to encroach wildly fast again, and that's about as much as her uncle can take. He (or someone in the court) tries to have her killed a couple of times--first with poisoned food, then with thin ice--and finally throws her in jail, in preparation for an execution. The queen spirits a key (from Edgar) into the prison, and Marni escapes, headed straight for the mountain and her dragon father. There she learns that the young women who have left her village have all voluntarily become griffins and phoenixes, and she suspects that she could become a dragon like her father just for the asking...but something holds her back. A couple of years of this wild, magical life, and she longs for home. Like her mother, she misses something about her human life--she can't stand seeing how the phoenixes and griffins can't recall their human selves any longer. She understands they made a choice, but isn't sure she wants to make it herself. She has also heard from a new girl/griffin that the old man is back in the flower hut and she guesses that it's her Gramps. Against her father's wishes, Marni escapes the mountain.
She stumbles on the hut where her mother was killed, and remembers the scene of her death from her babyhood (is a memory of that early age believable?). She recalls how much her mother loved her, and how her Gramps gave up everything for her. She realizes that the dragon sent the trees for her because he couldn't come himself--his power wouldn't allow him. She recognizes that every man in her life is trying to manipulate her, not let her make her own choices. The queen arrives on horseback, trailing a second horse, looking for her. (I forget how this coincidence happened, given that Marni was away for so long.) Marni and the queen go back to the mountain so that Marni can confront the dragon and bargain with him. She tells him that he killed her mother just as surely as her uncle did. By sending the trees he forced the prince to kill her. She tells him she knows everything about his woods and isn't afraid--and by not being afraid, he has no power over her. She'll cut down his trees and they'll stay down. She announces that she'll teach her daughters not to be afraid. She warns him that if he ever wants her, he's not to send the trees. He agrees, but is despondent over what she has said. She leaves the forest, and goes back to see her Gramps, where she forgives him for faking his death. They live again together in the hut, but she visits the kingdom "as much as is needed to keep the lords calm." In the end she knows she'll stop the woods if her father sends them, but she won't stop the lost girls, the ones who "give themselves up to the woods," because "the girls [the dragon] takes choose it with some deep part of them." Marni remains in love with Edgar, and it is left open whether she might eventually choose him, in her own good time and on her terms.
Feminism. A big theme of the novel is whether and how young women can choose their destinies. The girls who disappear into the woods are facing the limited choices that were historically offered to women (arranged marriages, for instance). Lack of agency abounds: a) Marni's best friend, Annel, is slated to be married before she disappears. Forgetting her past and forsaking humanity is a price Annel is willing to pay to be free of a life chosen for her. b) The queen has dutifully and agreeably embarked on her responsibility to marry the king, but she clearly misses her home in the neighboring country. c) Marni is manipulated into giving up her Gramps, is nearly manipulated into marriage by Edgar, is again almost manipulated into giving up her human form and her family ties as the dragon's daughter, and finally makes a stand for herself and for female descendants. In the end she recounts a feminist "what if" scenario to the dragon--a retelling of her mother's story where her mother gets to live, because the dragon doesn't send his tree army to get her and the prince doesn't send his human army to kill her.
Interestingly, none of the men in Marni's life give her full agency. Even her grandfather, who gave up everything for her and is completely loving and accepting of her, circumvents her decision to stay with him for the rest of her life by arranging his "death" so that she'll go to the king's court. Even Edgar, who clearly loves her and respects her, consistently mixes up his own goals with hers. Her father tries to lull her away from her human life, to own her for all eternity. Only Marni's mother and the queen, and perhaps, in the end, the old woman of the forest, want her to live the life she wants.
By and large I liked this theme of feminism, but I thought its denouement was a bit crammed at the end, that we waited too long to see Marni realize that the dragon couldn't himself retrieve her mother, which led her to understand the reason for the encroachment of the woods and the part the trees played in her mother's death. And then her final confrontations with the dragon and the king were wrapped up too quickly. If she had understood the meaning of the trees sooner, I think the pacing would have felt more satisfying, and the theme of feminism and standing up for the life she wanted would have been a bolder thread throughout more of the book. Until that point we do have Marni endlessly resisting Lord Ontrei, but that gets repetitive and is the only clue we have that the book is about feminism.
Also, I would have liked Gramps to have not failed her, or required her forgiveness in the end. It can still be a feminist story if one man in the bunch behaves honorably, without misstep, and I dislike the message that no man can be fully trusted. Hahn could have easily had Gramps be abducted rather than be complicit in his pretend death, for instance, which I actually thought was the way his disappearance was going to play out while I was reading (although if Edgar had arranged a forceful abduction, we would have had even less sympathy for him as a character, so I would have hoped for it not to be him).
Mother and daughter. I liked the theme of female love, companionship, and protection. Both Marni's mother and her aunt represent mother figures who care for her, and in the end, even the old woman of the woods does, by coming to terms with the fact that she can't control Marni, either. At the same time I'm interested that Marni knows she can't influence other women--that familial bonds (mothers and daughters) are the only way to break the cycle of patrimony. The girls who become griffins and phoenixes are driven by their lack of freedom to a desperate act (a kind of suicide of their human consciousness), but Marni is resigned to not being able to help them, which is ultimately a pretty dark message of helplessness and hopeless societal intransigence.
Marni's voice was inconsistent. Marni was supposed to speak with a country-ish accent and dialect, a lower-class one, presumably. Her Gramps spoke well, but loved her enough not to correct her. In fact, Marni vacillated between speaking incredibly eloquently, and speaking coarsely, with grammatical errors. When she moves to the royal court, we're meant to believe that she's slowly picking up better language, but the unevenness is about the same before and after her court life. In one breath she says, "I'm not just a princess, neither (p. 106)," and in the other, "You scarce know me, my lord (p. 107)." Her vocabulary is too good for someone from the country, whose grandfather apparently only taught her "her letters": mass, malice, contempt, vertigo.
There's a basic problem in giving a character a country dialect when you're writing in first person and you're also a lyrical author, because you can't stop yourself from putting amazing words like these in her mouth:
As I watch it swoop across the sky again and once again, my ears resound with a cry they can't possibly be picking up this far away--a piercing cry, a roar like the boundless black sky all lit with the moon's cold fire. (p. 149)
The rocks slide toward you and the trees rush up, and you think it's impossible, no matter how many times he's done it--you think there's no way in the world we're going to get ourselves off the ground this time. But the wings are beating windstorms, and he's snorting loud, smoky breaths, and between a moment of vertigo and a wild, crazy hope, we're going up, as high as ever we want. (p. 232)
Her father's squicky control of her. Was the dragon's relationship with her even a tad bit sexual? Did Hahn mean to send that message, or is this a Freudian flaw? The dragon is essentially replacing her dead mother with her. I do love the way she feels the tug of her dragon half: "I'll wonder how much they guess, how much they suspect about the monster in me, pulling at me...(p.168)" But much of the language surrounding her dad implies metaphorical intimacy: "I near wish he would eat me up and make me part of him (p. 217)." "Maybe I like the closeness that comes from riding with him. Maybe he likes that, too (p.234)." "I know that look. It's the one he gives me in the morning when he's of a mind to take me flying. It's a look that sends a thrill right through me, makes me think of the glorious hours to come (p. 244)."
Plot problems. Just a few glitches:
1. Why does the queen welcome Marni with such open arms, so instantly? Isn't she still hoping to produce an heir? I know she's lonely, and kind, and wants family, but nothing is said about the barren marriage, which must be sore point, and must present her with a desperate, even panicked feeling of failure, and must irritate the hell out of the king.
2. Why doesn't Marni question her father's death at all? Why would she believe that a grave contains her grandfather's body without checking? Wouldn't she wonder whether the drawing he left her was produced under duress? The Lord of Ontrei recently (and she felt presumptuously) proposed to the grandfather that he would marry her, after all.
3. After being away for so long (two years), how coincidental is it that the queen is out on horseback searching for Marni on exactly the night that Marni leaves the dragon?
4. "Seems he's never heard of my history with stabbing (p. 123)." What stabbing? Did I miss a story somewhere?
5. Sylvie is knitting and muttering to herself in Chapter Seven, and her muttering threw me off. Knitting and singing/muttering is how Marni creates her creatures. It felt like a bit of a red herring, making me wonder what Sylvie was saying--whether she also had powers, but then it turned out to be nothing.
6. In that same chapter, Edgar says right in front of Sylvie, "I don't like what the king has done, and I'd be happy to bring him down. I don't think I'm imagining that you feel the same way." Would he say this in front of a servant--a servant who might gossip with other servants and is fundamentally the employee of the king? Furthermore, would Sylvie just leave when Edgar begins to kiss Marni, or would she ask to excuse herself and wait to be dismissed?
7. Marni makes Gramps tell her who he was in cahoots with, saying, "I promise I won't cast a spell on whoever made you a deal (p. 300)." But there's no way she wouldn't have figured out that it was the Lord Ontrei the minute she heard that her Gramps was alive. Edgar was the person who "buried" the body!
8. I thought Marni was a toddler or very young child (under 5) when her mother was killed, but her memory of it (once jogged) is too clear for her to have been that young.
Anachronisms. These were few, but when they occurred they took me out of the "historical fantasy" feel of the novel.
"That you'd have my back while I'm at court. That you'd support me in front of the other lords..." (The origin of "I've got your back" is probably from World War II)
"Come on," I say, "give it [the gossip] up."
Swords aren't loud when unsheathed. "[The sword] scraped from its scabbard, harsh, like the first loud sound on a day when you've had no sleep (p. 257)." Sorry, but this is a movie trope that's factually incorrect and needs to die.
The title is weak, in my opinion. I don't know why, but that combination of words is so unmemorable to me, I have to look it up every time I want to type it out. And that fantastical creature she knits isn't really the crux of the book, but I think that's what the title seems to refers to, with no double entendre about Marni or her dad.
In sum. I don't write journal-length reviews like this if I don't respect the heck out of the book. This one is worth your time, and I predict Ms. Hahn has a lovely career ahead of her.