Title: Shadows on the Moon
Author: Zoë Marriott
Length: 447 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ¾
Suzume’s quiet country life is destroyed when, at fourteen, she sees soldiers cut down her beloved father and cousin. After her mother remarries her father’s friend Lord Terayama, Suzume discovers the terrible truth about her family’s deaths. She flees, first to her stepfather’s kitchens to work as a drudge and then from the house entirely. Along the way, she learns that she is a shadow-weaver, capable of creating powerful visual illusions, which she uses to disguise herself as well as to hide the evidence of her self-harm. As she settles into her second new identity and hones her powers, Suzume devises a plan to bring Terayama to justice at last–by winning the heart of the Moon Prince. She has only one problem: the fact that she has already fallen in love with another man.
I wanted to love this, but I barely even liked it.
Some readers have called Marriott’s prose poetic; I found it simplistic, almost juvenile, which was especially jarring considering how dark the tone of the novel was. It improved–marginally–in the last hundred or so pages, but by then I had almost begun to skim because I just wanted to be done. The pacing was poor throughout; the story dragged in some places, and in others it flew by much too quickly (such as at the very end, when everything was rushed to an absurd degree). It was full of pointless details and descriptions that did nothing to advance the plot and without which the story would have flowed and moved at a faster, more natural pace.
The first issue I had was with the characters. Suzume ought to have been sympathetic, and I did feel bad that she was such a haunted, unhappy little soul. Aside from seeing her father killed, however (and I’m not trying to make light of such a traumatic experience), Suzume experienced very little by way of abuse. She was, perhaps, a bit neglected, but she wanted for nothing for two-thirds of the novel…not a very Cinderella-esque arc for the MC of a Cinderella retelling. Nonetheless, for whatever reasons, Suzume spent 90% of the novel truly miserable. Because Shadows on the Moon is told in first-person, the reader experiences every single instance of Suzume’s self-pity and self-loathing. Scarcely a page goes by where she did not do or say something self-depreciating. This alarming attitude also led her to injure herself, frequently and sometimes terribly. It made for very dark, depressing reading. While I kept hoping that someone would intervene on Suzume’s behalf (only one character really did), and while I did pity Suzume for her desperate unhappiness, I did not find her to be a compelling character. The narrative never dealt with her self-harm or fragile mental state, either. It was disappointing and frustrating to say the least.
Of the remaining characters, only Akira, Suzume’s mentor/adopted sister held my interest. She was the only character that had a) a fleshed-out personality and b) a believable, well-developed relationship with Suzume herself. I did have a few…questions about Akira’s identity after Marriott threw a twist into her backstory, but it was never brought up again after it was first mentioned. Even Suzume’s love interest, the exotic and charming Otieno, fell flat. He had no personality besides being rather pushy. I never bought that he and Suzume were head-over-heels in love, and I didn’t really like the way he spoke to/interacted with his supposed Great Love. Their love story was cute at first, but the combination of his (lack of) personality and how rushed the romance became really sank it for me. Suzume also told more than she showed about Terayama, her “evil” stepfather, with the result that he felt rather toothless most of the time, and her mother may as well not have existed.
I think a lot of the problems I had feeling deeply for Suzume and her grief may have been fixed if the author hadn’t begun the novel on the day her father and cousin died. If I had experienced more of her mother’s neglect and more of her love for/closeness to the rest of her family, everything else would have been put into better context. tl;dr All of the characters in this book were rather weak, and their relationships with each other suffered as a result.
And then there was the world-building. Despite her author’s note in which Marriott claims that the Moonlit Land is not, in fact, just a fantasy version of medieval Japan…well, it is. The inhabitants speak Japanese and nearly everything about their culture and customs reflect those of Japan. There are very occasional hints at other East Asian (notably Chinese) cultures, but not enough to convince me that Suzume does not live on the Japanese archipelago. I thought that Marriott did a very respectful, if somewhat lackluster, job of creating the delicately beautiful, deeply traditional Moonlit Land (whose name I love, by the by) in the image of feudal Japan. I could have done with a better-developed portrait, but that sums up my complaints about the whole book.
The fantasy, though… I think I like the idea of “shadow-weaving,” but I still don’t quite know what it is, even after reading 440+ pages. Suzume always referred to her abilities in very vague terms and, again, did a lot of telling rather than showing. If any one thing needed a lot more attention and detail than it received in Shadows on the Moon, it was the element of shadow-weaving.
This book, as I said before, was also a retelling of Cinderella. It was therefore distressing to read that Marriott considered Cinderella a “wimp” who sat around waiting to be rescued and wanted to write a Cinderella story in which she was motivated by revenge. I feel pretty strongly about Cinderella, in that she was the victim of some terrible abuse–and literal enslavement–at the hands of her legal guardian at a time when she had very few options outside of her father’s home and therefore few means of escape. But her inherent kindness and goodness, her refusal to let her abuse twist her into a cold and bitter person, is absolutely essential to the Cinderella story as far as I’m concerned. While the Shadow Ball passages were some of the most interesting in the novel, given her attitude, I almost wish Marriott had chosen to eschew the whole Cinderella angle altogether.
For a book written in such a simplistic style that was a retelling of a well-known fairy tale, I felt like this one took me way too long to get through. It was dark and grim, but not in an interesting way, was paced awkwardly, hinged on a love story I didn’t care about, and featured a heroine/narrator to whom I never connected. It could have been executed much better than it was. Maybe a few more drafts were in order before it got published? Either way, this one was a definite disappointment.