Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Book Review - The Girl Who Drank the Moon

After seeing the great cover and reading the summary, we picked up a copy of The Girl Who Drank the Moon but it took a while to finally crack the cover and start reading. In the meantime, it won the Newbery Award a number of friends recommended the book to me which helped move it further up on the "to be read" pile. I finally read it and frankly was a little sad that I hadn't jumped in sooner.

The story is set in an unknown fairy tale type world. In this world there is a walled city called the Protectorate that is surrounded by dangerous swamp, forest and volcanic territory. Each year, the city sacrifices their youngest baby to a wicked witch by leaving the baby on a rock in a nearby clearing to be claimed by the witch.

Little do they know that the witch is actually a good witch and she discovers and saves these abandoned babies each year and carries them to adoptive families living in cities on the other side of the swamp. Sometimes when carrying the children, the witch feeds them sips of magical Starlight to strengthen them. One night, she mistakenly feeds the baby Moonlight instead which "enmagicks" the girl. The witch feels responsible and adopts the girl for her own. The novel tells the story of the people in the Protectorate, the witch and her friends and the upbringing of the young girl Luna...the girl who drank the moon.

The narrative structure jumps primarily between three main narratives.

The shortest is portrayed by a series of small chapters that seem to be a parent in the Protectorate telling their young child "bedtime stories" about the Witch. Through these small snippets we get insight into the town's beliefs and myths about the witch.

The next main narrative focuses on a few main characters living in the Protectorate. We learn about the hierarchy of their life and get close encounters with some of their leaders and protectors and the sad tale of a mother gone mad after her child was sacrificed to the Witch. This story arc has a dystopic theme and is filled with many tragic elements as we look on the plight of these people living within their walled city with a false fear of the Witch.

The largest narrative circles around the Witch and Luna. We slowly learn more and more about the witch, Xan, and her way of life. It isn't until the end of the book that we get a very complete backstory about her and even then it's not entirely complete. This backstory is actually rather interesting and we get small glimpses of it throughout the rest of the story; just enough to keep us curious without letting us see the whole picture. Xan's primary friends include a large, wise swamp monster named Glerk and a comically tiny and innocent dragon named Fyrian. Together, the three of them work to raise Luna.

These three stories are unraveled slowly and methodically. A few times I felt like things were moving a little too slowly and perhaps a little repetitively but overall the pacing worked. By drawing out the story, it helped increase the tension and anticipation of what would happen when Luna gained full control of her magic and/or when the three narratives finally came together (as they inevitably would). The middle third of the story is definitely a bit slow and may lose some readers but I have a hard time suggesting that anything be trimmed. Once the book, almost abruptly, moves into the climax, the last third of the book rushes along in a way that made me not want to put the book down.

The writing was clean, elegant and smart. It is easily approachable by a young reader (the book is listed as a "middle reader"...perhaps for a ~10-12 year old) while still having language and structure that will engage an adult reader. As the adult reader, I appreciated this.

I particularly liked the world building that went into this story. I enjoyed the balance of the dystopic society of the Protectorate and the "normal", non-dystopic world of the story with Xan and Luna. As you might expect, life isn't perfect at the witch's hut either. While not a dystopia, a misadventure turns this story arc into a less than straight path and one fraught with difficulties. In some ways, the problems at the witch's hut produce theme similar to those existing within the Protectorate. The events, behaviors and interactions all felt very believable and natural within the vibrant world built in this novel. Even the hiding of the unknown history of Xan and the times "before" felt natural given the overall mentality of the world.

The tone and themes of the novel may be a little heavy for younger readers to grasp but generally I don't think that will be a problem. From what I've experienced with younger readers, they usually gloss over the heavier themes they don't understand or don't relate to. There may be some younger readers who get hung up on some of the themes but most children should still enjoy the story.

The heavier themes really focus on the idea of tragedy and sorrow and how people deal with those emotions. As mentioned above, one of the key characters from the Protectorate is a mother who has gone insane due to the horrific sorrow of having to give her child away to the witch. That instance is the one presented in the most detail but the theme of sorrow is one that returns numerous times in the book through various tragic encounters. There are examples of sorrow being repressed, sorrow being shunned/shamed and sorrow being craved. The book doesn't explicitly present a moral that says "sorrow is healthy and should be addressed", it does lead the reader to the conclusion that it's alright to be sad and that it's possible to overcome sorrow and the tragic events that cause it.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to many/most Middle Readers as well as adults looking for a fresh, fun story. I think teens would enjoy this as well (as long as they don't pick up this fantasy novel hoping for some epic fantasy tale) and I am sure younger readers would enjoy it too but might need a little help getting through some sections. On the surface, this is a fun fantasy fable with some great characters and writing. Digging a little deeper, this book leaves you thinking about the way we deal with our own emotions and how we treat other people who vulnerably let us see their emotions. Either way you read it, you're in for a treat.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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