This book was a recommendation, cited as one which was “like The Night Circus.” And, honestly, that’s saying a lot – The Night Circus was friggin’ flippin’ effin’ amazing… But making that comparison, as I’ve now seen many do, also sets this book up for failure. I imagined something with YA messages like, “It’s okay to be you,” and, “Don’t worry about what other people think – the right people will accept you no matter what,” all wrapped up in magical realism with a touch of fantasy, similar to The Girl Who Drank the Moon.
But, alas… it was not to be.
First, and I hate that this is even necessary, let me just preface my entire review with this statement: this review is solely about this book and the way it was written, its character development, and the… well, not the plot, because there wasn’t one, but suffice it to say that my review is only about the book. I could honestly give a shit less who you sleep with, so long as it’s all consensual, nor do I care about what you wear, how you live, or what you choose to do, so long as you’re not hurting anyone else to do it (and I include animals in that “anyone else”). There seems to be so little happiness and good will left in the world that I can only commend people who are able to find it, however they find it and whomever they may find it with. Good on ya, mate.
When the Moon was Ours
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore
Genre: YA Fantasy
Version: Amazon Kindle
“To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considered Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.”
I can only assume this book is doing as well as it is because of its subject matter. Either people are afraid of giving it a bad score because they don’t want to be labeled as bigots or have it assumed that they have something against LGBT people, or it’s due to the lack of books like this on the market. There aren’t that many books out there that focus on transgender relationships, especially in the YA genre. And while you may currently be the sort of person who will only drink water which has been run through a filtration system, I do believe if you were lost out in the desert for days on end, you’d eventually take at least a sip of your own urine, and you’d find yourself, as the days wore on, thinking more and more, “Hey, if I close my eyes I can pretend it’s lemonade.”
All of that being said, the one good thing – the sole reason I gave this book one bouncing ball of fluffy yarn (did not like) rather than none (hated) – was that very same subject matter. Mostly the whole bacha posh cultural practice, of which I knew nothing. So, this book did open my eyes to some new knowledge, and I truly believe one can never know enough about… well… everything. So there was that. (If you’re interested in learning more about that fascinating, liberating, and tragic practice, there is a plethora of information available online, as well as a few free documentaries on YouTube that are well worth a watch.)
But the bad. God, there was just so much bad.
There’s no plot. That’s a big deal-breaker for me when it comes to books. I don’t want to shuffle aimlessly through your pages without purpose. It begins as confusing as hell, with the two major characters – Miel and Sam – swirling around the pronoun and moniker game: one moment Miel is Miel, the next she is Honey; one moment Sam is Sam, the next he is Moon; she and he and him and her are used randomly… and maybe that was intentional. Maybe the author was trying to show that the characters are just as confused about their own identities as we are by page two. If that’s the case, then I commend her for having had a plan when she began the book, but beyond that…
There is a family of witches who aren’t actually witches but are really just a group of spoiled, rather slutty teenage girls who can apparently get away with murder so long as they’re together. There’s an aunt-sister-cousin-roommate who’s really a long-lost relative of the opposite sex and a totally different age. There are pumpkins, for some reason, and they sometimes turn to glass, for some reason, which turns to stars… for some reason. There’s a mother who wants her daughter to want to make up her damn mind. There’s a river that’s sometimes a magical miracle-working life-giver, sometimes a cold-blooded killer, and sometimes a road for lit-up gourmet pumpkins. There’s a girl who licks honey from a knife a lot, and when she’s not actively licking said honey from the aforementioned knife, people are daydreaming about her licking honey from a knife, which means we have to read about all the times in the past when she licked honey from a knife. There’s a boy who knows a lot about the moon and fashions moon-lanterns out of painted paper, which he hangs all over town to cheer people or let others know what sort of mood he’s in, and who spends most of his time contemplating two things: whether or not the honey-licking, co-dependent, doormat of a girl loves him as much as he loves her, and whether or not he should or should not wear a dress to please a dead woman. A man tries to save his family from a centuries-old curse and gets thrown out of town for his trouble. A woman tries to destroy a child to save it and ends up a sorta-kinda ghost-type disembodied voice… sorta… kinda… thing. A child gives his life for love, then gains another life in return.
Oh, and there’s an empty coffin made of stained glass just sitting out in the middle of the woods. Just… you know. Because I guess there was no place else to put it. Or something.
Of the two protagonists, Sam was the easier for me to follow – most of the time. While I couldn’t personally relate with his struggle, I could empathize with him enough to understand his dilemma – it would be a terrible thing to be trapped in a body that responded to your commands but didn’t feel like yours. I found Miel, on the other hand, pretty unlikable from the start: besides her mousy, timid nature, there was the fact that she walked right into danger time and time again, and it was up to Sam to save her… time and time again. (So apparently even in books in which the characters are transgender, girls still need saving. ::sigh::)
Beyond that, there was very little character development, with all of the characters remaining pretty much the same until the end, meandering as they did from page to page, setting to setting, repeating themselves and their actions until… boom, the last few chapters, when it finally all came to an end and something like resolution was achieved.
The writing was… Well, it wasn’t The bloody Night bloody Circus, that’s for bloody sure. Nor was it anywhere close to The Girl Who Drank the Moon. McLemore was clearly going for whimsical, fairy-like tones, but all that she achieved was a mishmash of vague, repetitive, rather elementary imagery. The magic in The Night Circus and The Girl Who Drank the Moon – as well as other successful fantastical, magical, whimsically-written novels readily available – is believable because the authors make it believable. They make you and I feel that anything is possible within the settings and realms they have created, and their lyrical writing styles fit the stories they’re telling while still remaining sensible enough to understand and convey the imagery they wish us to see. When not boring me to death with its repetitiveness, When the Moon was Ours was written in a vague, forced style that I found thoroughly unpalatable. If I were to say, “It’s really humid, so please excuse me if my hair goes all Medusa on me,” Morgenstern might translate it as something along the lines of: “My hair writhes in the viscous air,” while McLemore would say instead something like: “In air like vegetable oil, the gorgons rise to crown her peak while a girl licked honey off a knife. Again.”
Oh, and just a bit of a nit-picky thing from me: what makes magic magical is the fantastical notion of it all, the other-worldliness and hint of beauty or danger or both that surrounds it; however, if everyone has bloody magic, then magic isn’t fantastical or even bloody magical – it’s the norm.
Soooo… To summarize: if you’re thirsty for a genuinely thought-provoking, whimsically-written book, check out Erin Morgenstern, Kelly Barnhill, and Catherynne Valente. But if you’re a transgender teen struggling to find something with which you may be able to relate – or someone who is trying to relate to a transgender person themselves – then shut your eyes, hold your breath, tell yourself this is just lemonade, and take a swig; it won’t sustain you for long, but it might fool you into a false sense of satisfaction.