Feb 2, 2015

A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn

A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca HahnA Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn

Marni, the protagonist of A Creature of Moonlight, lives with her grandfather by the edge of the woods. Hers is a world in which forests are places of danger, but also of allure: all around her there are stories of girls who ran off to the woods in search of the kind of freedom they couldn’t find elsewhere. Marni’s mother was one of these girls: she was a princess who wanted a different life. Marni and her grandfather are exiled members of the royal family, working as gardeners and living in peace outside the intrigue of the court.

But things begin to change when the trees start to move into the kingdom. Marni can hear their whispers, and they’re becoming too loud to ignore. Suddenly she finds herself caught between a world of forests, wild dragons and griffins, and the politics of a court whose king wants her dead — but where she also finds friendship and support in unexpected places.

I picked up A Creature of Moonlight because it had blurbs by Franny Billingsey and Kristin Cashore, two of my absolute favourite authors. As I hoped, Rebecca Hahn’s sensibility is very close to theirs: both Cashore and Billingsey write fantasy novels that are deeply concerned with gender and with how girls and women can reclaim the power to shape their own lives in constraining environments, and this is what A Creature of Moonlight deals with too.

I don’t think I quite managed to do this novel’s plot justice in my opening paragraphs, but what worked for me was less about the plot and more about how A Creature of Moonlight has a unique voice and metaphorical resonance in spades (Memory, the voice in particular struck me as very much your sort of thing). This isn’t to say that the story is a weak one — only that the telling is what makes it stand out. A Creature of Moonlight is thoughtful and subdued, dark and layered, and has a strong mood and sense of place that put me in mind of novels like The Tombs of Atuan or The Folk Keeper. The other obvious comparison is Seraphina, as both Hartman and Hahn write about humans and dragons and our relationship with the idea of wildness the latter represent; however, I’d pair the two novels mostly because it’s interesting to see similar premises executed in such different yet equally effective ways. These dragons are not like Seraphina’s dragons, and from a thematic perspective they stand for very different things.

Marni spends much of A Creature of Moonlight trying to make sense of her mother’s decision to flee to the woods, and exploring what this might say about the ways women’s lives are constrained and defined by others. “Maybe”, she thinks at one point, “she was worn down by all the things they wanted her to be”. She becomes increasingly aware of the fact that the men around her, even those she loves and who love her back, even her grandfather, are all too ready to “make all her choices for her”. Marni has to negotiate personal relationships that are meaningful and important to her but nevertheless exist in a context of inequality and power differentials, and this was really interesting to see.

Going back to the girls who run off to the woods, I liked that A Creature of Moonlight didn’t aim for a single story; an all-encompassing narrative about why these girls leave. As Marni puts it,
I imagine there are a thousand reasons girls take themselves to the woods.
Cruel parents. Ugly betrothed. A wish, a dream of something they’ll never have out there with those rules and probabilities, and they can’t accept it anymore.
A thousand reasons, and a thousand choices, and a thousand fast-beating hearts and quick-stepping feet and deep breaths of their first moments of freedom.
For many, then, going to the woods is an escape — a choice only in the sense that it’s a rejection of all other paths presented to them. It’s an attempt to take control of their own lives by following the only alternate model that seems available. The context in which their choices are constrained is inescapable, but — much like in our world — it coexists with individual preferences and desires, and with as many truths as there are girls. I appreciated how Hahn acknowledged this context but didn’t define going to the woods solely in negative terms. Marni learns that her mother went to the woods with eyes full of “happiness, anticipation of a life she would choose for herself, every day she lived”, and this strikes me as important part of acknowledging women’s full humanity: growing up in a world where sexism is inescapable doesn’t mean that reacting to sexism is the driving force behind our every action.

I was also very interested in Marni’s relationship with the Lord of Ontrei, a powerful courtier who makes advances on her. His motivations are clearly political, yet there’s also an undercurrent of attraction between the two. The Lord of Ontrei could very easily have become your typical romanticised dangerous man, but I think A Creature of Moonlight is doing something a bit different. It put me in mind of Margaret Mahy’s The Tricksters in its approach to sexuality: both are novels that give their heroines room to experience erotic feelings for questionable men without shaming them or putting them on trial, but that at the same time don’t shy away from analysing the power dynamics behind this kind of attraction.

In her excellent book Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell, Katherine Angel talks about how her desire and her erotic imagination have been shaped by the patriarchal world she lives in — a world that sexualises male aggression and female submission. The book documents her attempts to reclaim her private experience of desire in a way that isn’t at odds with her existence as an autonomous human being whose will matters, and I was reminded of that as I read A Creature of Moonlight. Marni is attracted to Lord of Ontrei, but she also says and (obviously) means this:
“What is it with you, my Lord of Ontrei, that makes you think that when I’m telling you no, and no, and no again, what I really must be meaning is ask me again? Could be I’m crazy, but I’ve no wish to be the stone you step on to reach the throne. If all you’re going to say, again and again, is marry me, then I reckon you’d better leave this room and not come back.”
I was thrilled to see that the narrative never undermines this — Marni’s private desire is allowed to exist without being framed as “proof” that she does in fact welcome his advances deep down, and the novels ends in a way that reaffirms her will. This is yet another way in which Marni’s life doesn’t follow the script other people had set out for her, and it was wonderful to see.

Other bits I liked:
She knew, as I knew, that you don’t stop a story half done. You keep on going, through heartbreak and pain and fear, and times there is a happy ending, and times there isn’t. Don’t matter. You don’t cut a flower half through and then wait and watch it as it slowly shrivels to death. And you don’t stop a story before you reach the end.

If I ever have a baby girl, I’m going to run us away, over the mountains to the land with the rocks and the sea, and I’ll find us a home there, where no one will come knocking who knows our names, who might want to take us through with a sword. When my baby girl cries, I’ll be there to hold her. When she stubs her toe or skins her knee, I’ll take her mind off it with stories, and I’ll sing her to sleep with songs. I’ll teach her how to plant flowers, though we’ll grow them only for ourselves, and we’ll bake sweet bread together and go for long walks and catch toads just to set them free, and she’ll never have to stare up into the darkness wondering why she’s all alone.
They read it too: The Book Smugglers, Waking Brain Cells, you?


  1. Oh my, but this sounds Wonderful! Oooh, and I just checked--my library branch has it! Though I might like to own it, if for that lovely cover alone (oh, shallow, shallow me).

    1. It's not shallow of you! I really love the cover too.

  2. This sounds wonderful! I'm adding it to my list.

  3. This sounds good and you mention some of my favourite authors in comparison.. Going to have to get a copy!

  4. Definitely going on my wish list based on your review, but to be honest, it was already going on the list because of that gorgeous cover.

  5. Woman, you are such a peril to my TBR list. The only reason it's not 70% "Ana recommended it" in the "where I heard about it" column is that I keep reading the books right after you talk about them, and thus they become deleted from my spreadsheet.

    1. I don't know if I should apologise or not :P


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