Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: F/F, major genderfluid character, minor nonbinary character
Published on: 8th September 2020
An orphan girl must face untold danger and an ancient evil to save her kingdom’s prince in this lush, romantic fantasy perfect for fans of Girls of Paper and Fire and Tess of the Road.
How can you live without your heart?
In the vast palace of the empress lives an orphan girl called Nothing. She slips within the shadows of the Court, unseen except by the Great Demon of the palace and her true friend, Prince Kirin, heir to the throne. When Kirin is kidnapped, only Nothing and the prince’s bodyguard suspect that Kirin may have been taken by the Sorceress Who Eats Girls, a powerful woman who has plagued the land for decades. The sorceress has never bothered with boys before, but Nothing has uncovered many secrets in her sixteen years in the palace, including a few about the prince.
As the empress’s army searches fruitlessly, Nothing and the bodyguard set out on a rescue mission, through demon-filled rain forests and past crossroads guarded by spirits. Their journey takes them to the gates of the Fifth Mountain, where the sorceress wields her power. There, Nothing will discover that all magic is a bargain, and she may be more powerful than she ever imagined. But the price the Sorceress demands for Kirin may very well cost Nothing her heart.
Move over, Wizard Howl; there’s a new eater of hearts in town. And she’s far more swoon-worthy than you ever were.
A big chunk of fantasy readers about my age (and older, and younger, for that matter) will remember Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. Others might know the story from the Studio Ghibli adaption of the book.
I sat up and paid attention way back when all we knew about Night Shine was its pitch: Howl’s Moving Castle, but queer. That was enough to sell me, and Night Shine was one of my most anticipated reads of the year.
It does not disappoint!
Nothing is a young woman who lives in the walls of the palace, an orphan who would have no place if she hadn’t the friendship and favour of Kirin Dark-Smile, the prince and heir. No one knows where she came from, and no one particularly cares, so long as she stays quiet and out of the way and lets people forget about her.
Instead, she does something spectacular, and has to go rescue the prince from a sorceress who only steals girls, not boys – and yet has taken Kirin.
Night Shine is simultaneously a beautifully simple and delightfully intricate novel. On one level, I could lay out the plot for you in a sentence or two, but to do so would be to cut the heart out of this story; you would miss so much! You would miss Gratton’s light, deft hand with her worldbuilding, the way she lets details fall just-so so that their ripples paint the shape of a world as big and real and vital as our own. You would miss all the cunning loopholes Nothing can slip through via gleeful worldplay; you would miss celestial unicorns and river-dragons and most of all – most of all you would miss the arc of a girl called Nothing becoming…Everything.
There’s just so much to love here, I don’t know where to start. Maybe the place to begin is with the way Gratton contrasts the relationships that make up the story: Kirin + Nothing, Kirin + Sky (Kirin’s bodyguard and secret lover), Sky + Nothing – and Nothing + the Sorceress Who Eats Girls. This is very much a book about love, but not the soft, starry-eyed kind; it’s about love as a feral, strange thing, eerie and beautiful, with sharp edges and feathers. Neither of the loves on offer to Nothing – as part of a polyamorous relationship with Kirin and Sky, or the love of the Sorceress – are conventional (to the reader – the set-up Kirin, Sky and Nothing have been planning to enter into for years is perfectly normal within their culture); but still, there’s a very stark (and, I think, deliberate) difference between the relationship of Nothing and Kirin, and Nothing and the Sorceress. It’s one that I found absolutely thrilling; on the one hand is a literal prince, Nothing’s childhood friend and benefactor, the person she has always believed would be her future. And on the other side is this powerful, frightening woman, who takes the hearts of young women for her dark magic.
I mean, it’s not even that most stories would make the decision between the two love interests obvious; in most stories, the sorceress wouldn’t even be an option, and not because she and Nothing happen to share a gender. She’s dark! Scary! She shapeshifts and she kills people and she deals with demons! (More on the demons later). This is not someone who’s supposed to be a love interest! This is someone who’s supposed to be the villain!
So it is just beyond amazing to me that Gratton takes all of that – everything the Sorceress is – and makes her a love interest anyway. Like – screw your ideas of traditional romance; monsters make awesome girlfriends.
(It’s so much more complicated than that. It’s so rich and vital and mutable, refusing to be pinned down and neatly labelled. There’s no box to neatly tuck this into. This isn’t a familiar trope, we don’t recognise this story-pattern, arc-pattern, when we encounter it. We have no map for this. This is uncharted territory, and it’s beautiful.)
I’ve been working on an essay for a while know about how queerness and magic are intertwined, but Gratton got there before me, and I don’t resent it at all because she’s demonstrated and explained it so well. Magic is about liminal spaces, the Sorceress tells Nothing; it’s about refusing labels, stepping outside the norm, rejecting the role society demands you fill. And really, the entire story of Night Shine is about liminal spaces, places, people. Nothing literally lives inside the walls of the palace, and, I mean, the entire story is kicked off by the fact that Kirin is genderfluid; if he weren’t, there would have been no story at all. So the book starts from that point – Kirin’s genderfluidity – and never really goes back to the non-liminal world. Just in case the reader’s missed it, Gratton makes it even clearer once Nothing and Sky leave the palace in order to rescue Kirin; with the help of a powerful spirit, the miles and miles dissolve around them, the two stepping outside of normal reality to reach Kirin far more quickly than they would have been able to otherwise. It beautifully illustrates the point that they’ve left the world they know behind, pretty literally moving into a space where the old rules – and their old selves – no longer apply.
Nothing herself is nothing (her name) and not-nothing (because she exists) at the same time. It’s the very core of the book, and the concept is worked into every aspect of the story in truly wonderful ways – many of which I can’t share, because spoilers, but trust me, they’re impressive and delightful.
Things are not what they seem, in Night Shine; there are secrets where there should be truth, and betrayals where there should be trust, and good and bad aren’t nearly as simple as black and white. Sages wreak harm and sorceresses offer love. It’s unique and unexpected.
I swooned over every last detail, pretty much. Not least Nothing herself; I loved watching her grow over the course of the story, grow into something bigger and louder and wilder and strange, so different to the quiet, near-invisible person she is at the start of the book. I think you could read it as…some kind of commentary on femininity; the idea of girls breaking out of the moulds they’re placed in; the idea of femininity as wild and maybe a bit terrifying, something to be feared and respected and embraced. Gratton’s girls are not tame creatures, even if Nothing looks like one to begin with.
I could write an essay on Nothing’s name, okay? On the fact of a girl – when girls are so often dismissed as nothing – literally being named that (so awful, but so clever). On how the story subverts and twists that – Nothing being Nothing means she slips through those loopholes I mentioned earlier (imagine a spell that says ‘nothing can enter this place!’ Nothing could walk right through, couldn’t she?) On how being nothing is a power – the quiet, slippery, clever power of women throughout history. And on how someone named and dismissed as Nothing is anything but.
And can we talk about the spirits and demons for a sec? These otherworldly creatures who live in flowers and ponds and mountains and rivers, some of them teeny-tiny and some of them massive, and massively powerful. I adored how strange and lovely they were, and how they communicated and the things they liked and didn’t – some of my favourite moments revolved around Nothing talking to a small spirit that was ignored by most other people. Gratton created this whole eco-system of magic, and I am still just fascinated by how spirits can die and become demons – which does not, in this context, refer to a scary malevolent monster, but a spirit that can no longer draw on the aether. Except for the Greater Demons, who are big enough and powerful enough that even when they die, they can draw on the aether and don’t need to bond with a witch or sorcerer to survive. The ways in which humans and spirits co-exist in this world just delighted me over and over again!
Another minor (but game-changing, imo) worldbuilding detail is this: instead of giving us strange, unpronouncable fantasy-names (which I, personally, struggle to remember and keep track of), Gratton gives us the names of characters as if the reader were a native speaker. What that means is, instead of a character being named Elyshteronwë (which I have just made up) or something, and the author explaining that this means Day-The-Sky-Opened…we have a character named The Day the Sky Opened. Whose usename/nickname is Sky.
I know that seems like such a small thing, but it’s actually a pretty major deal. By treating the reader like a native of the world she’s writing about, Gratton breaks the fourth wall and draws the reader into the story in a way many fantasy stories don’t. We know what the names mean. We hear the names exactly as a native of this book would. To write Elyshteronwë throughout the book, instead, is to put up a wall between the reader and the world; it says, you are a visitor here. You don’t know the language. You don’t know the people.
Instead, Gratton carefully brings the reader in instead of shutting us out. We don’t hear gibberish when we’re told the Empress’ title: instead we know she is The Empress with the Moon in Her Mouth. Which, besides being a beautiful title, means we know her as her own subjects do. It’s as if Gratton waved a wand and made her readers bilingual, and it’s such a small thing, but it delights (I loved, loved, loved all the names!) and it has a powerful effect on the reader.
At least, it did me!
I’ve been working on this review for weeks, and to be honest I could probably keep going for another month. But the best way to learn how awesome this book is is to pick it up for yourself. Night Shine is without question one of the best books of the year, and if you let it pass you by, you are depriving yourself of a genuine treasure.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have all of Gratton’s backlist to work my way through!