Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Queer MC, nonbinary MC, trans MC, secondary polyamory M/NB/F
PoV: Third-person, past tense, multiple PoVs
Published on: 30th August 2022
The fate of an Empire lies with a headstrong Heir and a restless demon in this lush YA fantasy for fans of Laini Taylor and Girl, Serpent, Thorn.
Ever since she was a girl, Raliel Dark-Smile’s best friend has been the great demon that lives in the palace. As the daughter of the Emperor, Raliel appears cold and distant to those around her, but what no one understands is that she and the great demon, Moon, have a close and unbreakable bond and are together at all times. Moon is bound to the Emperor and his two consorts, Raliel’s parents, and when Raliel comes of age, she will be bound to Moon as well, constrained to live in the Palace for the rest of her days.
Raliel is desperate to see the Empire Between Five Mountains, and she feels a deep kinship with Moon, who longs to break free of its bonds. When the time finally arrives for Raliel’s coming of age journey, she discovers a dangerous way to take Moon with her, even as she hides this truth from her travel companion, the beautiful, demon-kissed bodyguard Osian Redpop. But Osian is hiding secrets of his own, and when a plot surfaces that threatens the Empire, Raliel will have to decide who she can trust and what she’ll sacrifice for the power to protect all that she loves.
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~let’s steal a demon
~nonbinary emperors are an inspiration
~unicorns always know
~never go swimming without your gills
~names are everything
Moon Dark Smile is the standalone sequel to Night Shine, aka one of my favourite books of 2020 (and of the last decade, for that matter). You don’t need to have read Night Shine to enjoy Gratton’s latest exquisite fantasy, but I strongly recommend you do – both because it gives you the backstory of and insight into many of Moon Dark Smile’s characters, and because it’s an objectively wonderful book.
But we’re not here to talk about Night Shine.
Raliel is the Heir to the Moon – daughter of the Emperor, one day to be Empress herself. Unlike her three parents, she isn’t able to take off the cool poise of her public self at the end of the day – it’s not a mask for her, but all she has. Which is maybe part of the reason her only real friendship is with Moon, the Great Demon of the palace. And that friendship is a big part (but not the only part) of why she steals Moon away to try and find out how to set it free from its binding to the royal family.
(Demons and spirits in Raliel’s world have nothing to do with good or evil, btw, or any kind of heaven or hell. A spirit is a being of aether – feel free to think of it as magic or energy – and demons are just spirits whose ‘house’ – their anchor to the material world – has been destroyed. A Great Spirit is one who is extremely powerful; a Great Demon is created when a Great Spirit’s house is destroyed. They have differing abilities, but superficially aren’t hugely different.
I say this so you understand that while Moon is extremely unhuman, it isn’t evil, and what Raliel does involves no Satanic bargains or whatever. Toss those kinds of preconceptions aside for this book.)
I went into Moon Dark Smile expecting to love it – it was one of my most anticipated books of the year! – and Gratton MORE than delivered. Between the elegantly shining prose, the expanded look at one of my favourite fictional realms, a plot whose twists and turns I completely failed to predict, and a trio of main characters who defied convention, I was swooning by the time I reached chapter three.
Superficially, the plot sounds fairly conventional; Raliel goes on a quest seeking a magical goal, even if it’s not an object. It is, in large part, a journeying story, both in the literal sense and in the personal growth sense – Raliel goes questing under the cover of the traditional Heir’s Journey, and one of her goals is to figure out who she is, find a sense of self, become more. She doesn’t really know who she is, and she wants to learn. We’ve seen this character arc before.
But it stands out from typical journeying plotlines in a few ways. The first is that Raliel (and Moon, and Raliel’s guard/companion Osian) do not have a set destination, or a specific quest object they’re looking for. Raliel and Moon genuinely do not know how to alter or end the binding between Moon and the imperial family, and they don’t have a single wise individual they can set out to talk to about it. This could have resulted in a very vague, lacking-direction kind of plot, but it didn’t; it felt very believable to me, and made Raliel and Moon even more sympathetic. It’s too easy to imagine being in their shoes and just having absolutely no idea where to even start, despite all their passion and determination to accomplish their goal.
The second thing is the emotional journey aspect, the development of the characters and the dynamics between them over the course of their travels. I adored all three of the main cast – Raliel, Moon, and Osian – but the way the relationships between them evolved? I didn’t see any of it coming. Things I expected or took for granted – because things always go That Way, especially in YA – didn’t happen at all, and I was completely blindsided (albeit delighted!) by other developments. I can’t emphasise enough how much I love to be surprised, how much I appreciate it when storytellers don’t take the expected, conventional approach or route – and I should have known better, because Gratton’s stories are always packed full of the best kind of surprises.
Onto the characters themselves. I had immense sympathy for Raliel, who is cool and reserved because she doesn’t know how not to be – who is aware of her privilege, but also fiercely devoted to her responsibilities, including responsibilities she discovers or takes on for herself; no one ever tells her that Moon’s situation is unjust, but once she realises that it is, nothing is going to stop her from fixing it. As someone who also struggles to emote correctly and quit repressing my feelings, watching her learn how to laugh? Was absolutely wonderful.
Osian is a cinnamon roll. Enough said.
Moon is unabashedly my favourite character; feral, strange, vicious, selfish, and very very alien – what’s not to love? I adore non-human characters who really feel not-human-at-all, and at no point can the reader ever forget that Moon is seriously Other. Sometimes that manifests in lines that make you laugh; sometimes it’ll have your jaw dropping; more than once it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Moon is not nice, and dear gods no one should forget that – but Moon is just so fascinating, and this is very much a story of its personal growth too, it figuring out who and what it wants to be, if it does eventually get a say in those things.
And it was a pure joy to see old favourites again; Night Shine and Shadows make reappearances in this book, as do Kirin and Sky – now joined by Kirin’s second consort, Elegant Waters, who is absolutely fabulous in every way – and even the Selegan! I was so happy to get updates on them all, twenty years after the end of the previous book.
But the heart of Moon Dark Smile is, understandably, the relationship between Raliel and Moon, which I long to write an essay on; the possessiveness and the passion, the initially forced codependency that becomes a silky deliciousness for them both, the sensuality of it (and I mean that literally, in how they explore and experience and share physical sensation and stimuli together), the not-insignificant thread of danger winding through it all. It’s a love story, but a love story for those of us who love monsters, who want to be them or embrace them or both, and I loved every second of it.
Plus, seeing Raliel and Moon both come into their power, rising and claiming it, standing defiant together before everything and everyone who said it was impossible? I get goosebumps just thinking about it. It’s this glorious epic triumphant arc of becoming MORE and I cannot even, okay? It’s perfect. It’s just perfect.
I would call this a silken book rather than a slow one; it never felt meandering to me, or like there was nothing pushing the story onwards. There are threats and danger aplenty, monsters and sorcerers and deadly magics; we have a number of what might be called action scenes, and although none of them are conventional battles, they still had me glued to the pages, holding my breath. At the same time, a lot of Moon Dark Smile felt languid, lingering, luxuriating in a kind of decadent richness that flowed between introspection and sensory celebration, magical experimentation and character-and-relationship-development, exploring and discovering the potential of the characters and of magic.
(And the showdown. THE FINALE. There was nothing languid about that. I swear my heart stopped and my breath caught and, just, WOW.)
This is a story that makes you feel; it had me laughing and biting my nails, swearing and cheering, raging and panicking, weepy-eyed and grinning. But most of all, it left me glowing. I am EXULTANT that Gratton decided to come back to this world, and I could not be happier with this book. There’s nothing I’d critique, nothing I’d change; I want to hug it to my chest and spin around with glittery GLEE. Moon Dark Smile is exquisite and extraordinary, idiosyncratic as only a Gratton book can be – and as expected, it’s my newest favourite fantasy.
Give it a chance, and it’ll be your newest fave too.