Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Shadows On The Moon by Zoë Marriott

Posted by Simcha 5:36 PM, under | 2 comments

"On my fourteenth birthday when the sakura was in full bloom, the men came to kill us. We saw them come, Aimi and me. We were excited, because we did not know how to be frightened. We had never seen soldiers before."

Suzume is a shadow-weaver. She can create mantles of darkness and light, walk unseen in the middle of the day, change her face. She can be anyone she wants to be. Except herself.

Suzume died officially the day the Prince's men accused her father of treason. Now even she is no longer sure of her true identity.
Is she the girl of noble birth living under the tyranny of her mother’s new husband, Lord Terayama? A lowly drudge scraping a living in the ashes of Terayama’s kitchens? Or Yue, the most beautiful courtesan in the Moonlit Lands?

Everyone knows Yue is destined to capture the heart of a prince. Only she knows that she is determined to use his power to destroy Terayama.

And nothing will stop her. Not even love.

Suzume's idyllic childhood abruptly comes to an end the day the emperor's soldiers storm into her house and murder her father, as well as everyone else present.  After witnessing her cousin, Aime, being shot down by an arrow, Suzume goes into hiding until her mother arrives home from the journey that had saved her. Accompanying Suzume's mother is Lord Terayama, a family friend who offers to take Suzume and her mother into his household. But while Suzume knows that she should be grateful to Terayama for offering them shelter and a new life she feels that something isn't right about Terayama and his relationship with her mother.

When Suzume accidentally overhears a conversation that reveals the truth about her father's death, she is forced to flee in order to avoid becoming the next victim. From a kitchen drudge to a beautiful courtesan, Suzume assumes one identity after another as she plots the perfect revenge against the man who destroyed her life. The only bright spot in Suzume's bleak existence is the exotic prince Otieno, who is somehow always able so see through Suzume's illusions and right into her heart. But Suzume doesn't have the luxury of indulging in a romantic relationship, not when she owes her father and cousin justice and when she is so close to her goal...

Shadows on the Moon wasn't anything like what I had expected. It's billed as a fairly tale retelling of Cinderella but there are actually very few similarities between the two stories, though the story told here was a lot richer and more complex than I had anticipated.

The story takes place in the fictional Moonlit Land, which bears a strong resemblance to Japan, in setting and culture. Since I've always been fascinated by Asian culture I really enjoyed reading a fantasy novel that takes place in a similar setting. This also gave the story an exotic flavor while keeping it on familiar ground, more so than if it had taken place in a completly imaginary world. I think this will probably makes the story particularly appealing to readers who are new to fantasy or who prefer stories in real-life settings, in the style of urban fantasies.

In addition to the setting, what also makes this story unique are some of the sensitive themes that Marriott touches upon and which I haven't come across before in a YA fantasy novel. After witnessing the murder of her father and cousin Suzume turns to her mother for comfort but instead is told to keep quiet and forget about the past. Forbidden to express the pain and confusion that's been building up inside of her Suzume begins cutting herself as a way of releasing some of those feelings.

There are a lot of fantasy books that feature children who survive the murder of their families or villages, but this is the first one that I've read which really deals with the affects on the surviver. Depression and Post Traumatic Stress are to be expected for anyone who has gone through such a horrifying ordeal and Marriott handles these topics in a sensitive and believable manner.

Suzume's experiences turn her from an innocent and playful 16 year-old girl to a hardened, world-weary young woman set on revenge. But Suzume's journey is not completely dark for along the way she is befriended by a courtesan who teaches her how to trust again and a foreign prince who may teach her how to love again, if she would let him. Eventually Suzume may even learn how to forgive and love herself.

While escaping from the soldiers that killed her father Suzume discovers the ability to make herself unseen, though it's not until later that she realizes what it is that she had done. Once it is explained to Suzume that she is a Shadow-Weaver and can create illusions she begins to practice the skill and later puts it to use in her plan to ensnare the emperor. Eventually Suzume learns that her shadow-weaving also allows her to play musical instruments with great skill. The foreign prince, Otieno, is also a shadow-weaver, which is what draws the two together since shadow-weavers are able to sense each other and so are able to come to each other's aid when necessarily. 

While I enjoyed the idea of the shadow weaving I really wished the the author had developed it a bit more and offered more satisfying explanations about how it worked.  I'm not one to require lengthy explanations for how magic works, because then I would just read science fiction, but I do still like for enough details to be included for the magic to make sense to me. For example, I would have liked to have known why Suzume has the ability to weave shadows when no one else in her family can. Is this a talent that's inherited or just randomly manifests in certain individuals for no apparent reason? And what does the weaving of illusions have to do with playing a musical instrument? At times the magic felt like a convenient way to provide Suzume with the tools that she needed to complete a particular goal. And at the end Suzume discovers a new aspect of her talent that did not seem to add anything new to the story at all. So if there was one thing I would have improved on in this book it would have been the way the magic was handled, though it wasn't an issue that bothered me enough to hamper my enjoyment of the story.

As the book began drawing to a close I suddenly became panic-stricken that the story would end in a cliffhanger, so it was with great relief and pleasure that I came to the happy ending that I had been hoping for. I even sent the author a quick Tweet to thank her for making this wonderful story a stand-alone, to which she responded that many of her readers seem to feel the same way. She then apologized for making her next book the first in a trilogy. Drat! But I enjoyed this book so much that I will definitely be picking up whatever Merriott writes next.

I highly recommend Shadows on the Moon to pretty much everyone. The promises made by it's beautiful cover are definitely fulfilled when you open up the book's pages .

*As a side note, since reading Shadows on the Moon I've been thinking a lot about what elements need to be present in a story for it to be considered a fairy-tale retelling. It seem that recently any story involving a girl down on her luck and an unpleasant step-parent is labeled as a retelling of Cinderella even when, as in this case, the two stories bare very little resemblance to each other.  Perhaps the story of Cinderella inspired Marriott to write Shadows of the Moon though I wouldn't say that that's enough to make it a retelling of the fairy tale. I don't think I would have even made the connection between the two stories if it wasn't promoted in that way. Though perhaps there are more similarities here than I am aware of since no one else seemed to feel the same way I do. In fact, every review I've read of Shadows on the Moon mentions that it is a Cinderella retelling, though they often don't explain why. If anyone here has read Shadows on the Moon I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter, or even on fairy tale retelling in general. And for the record, if I somehow wasn't clear enough about this in my review, I did really enjoy Shadows on the Moon, as a Cinderella retelling or not. And the lovely cover was


I'm glad I was deep into your review before the Cinderella aspect was brought up - which I never would have guessed from the synopsis. I am very intrigued with the Asian-like setting and am really encouraged that those who aren't as well-versed in fantasy (like me) would enjoy entering this world.

Sounds lovely, even if there should have been better developments with certain things. But sometimes one can overlook those things

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