Shadows on the Moon, by Zoe Marriott, is a beautifully written interpretation of Cinderella, set in a Japanese-inspired fantasy land. It's a lyrical tale of struggle and determination, of losing one's identity and reforging it anew, and of finding and defining family for yourself. When her father and cousin are executed as traitors, a traumatized Suzume discovers her talent for shadow-weaving -- the ability to contort her appearance, to conceal herself in shadow, or make herself the most eye-catching figure in the room. After Suzume's mother remarries the ruthlessly ambitious Terayama, Suzume becomes engaged in a struggle to survive and to avenge her family.
There are so many things to praise about this book that it's difficult to know where to start. Setting aside the fact that the prose is gorgeous (which it is) and the characters engaging (which they are), the most obvious point to note must be that not a single character in this book is white. Set in fantasy-Japan, all characters are Japanese, except for the relatively open and emotional foreigners who come from that world's equivalent of Africa. Even more unusual for a YA novel, one of the story's main characters is a transgender woman, a character who is powerful, influential, kind and ultimately a deeply sympathetic character for the reader. On a more superficial level, it was also intriguing to see a retelling of Cinderella with roles reversed -- the evil stepfather, instead of the evil stepmother -- and where the prince is, well, like all fairy tale princes: kindhearted and genuine, but very naive and ultimately bland. These details aren't the focus of the story. They aren't made a fuss of. They're just part of this world, of Suzume's life, and the novel is richer for them.
Shadows on the Moon is a character driven novel, and Suzume is definitely a character worth meeting. She has intense and realistic strengths, but also many flaws, including a stubborn, bloodthirsty desire for revenge. She is deeply traumatized by her past, and although she isn't defined by this trauma, the novel uses these experiences to explore topics such as self-harm and self-resentment in a vivid and sensitive way.
Shadows on the Moon is unputdownable. I read it on a plane, and I didn't even notice or mind the long, uncomfortable journey, because I was completely lost in this story. It is compelling and beautifully written, and definitely worth a look.
In fact, the novel has only one major flaw: Suzume's romance with fellow shadow-weaver Otieno. I know it's practically a mandate that YA has an epic romance to cheer for, but the one in this story didn't quite work. It felt forced, which is problematic, as their love is pretty important to the plot. They have an almost love-at-first sight, I-love-you-even-though-we've-rarely-spoken quality to them, which is very fairy-tale-esque, but Otieno isn't the romantic figure the author would have us believe. He's romantically controlling. The "if you refused to come with me, I would kidnap you, because our love deserves to live" type. Suzume is ambitious, talented and determined, and Otieno appreciates that in her, but he's supposed to be the one character who can always see through her shadow-weaving illusions to her "true self," and there's something creepily possessive about his interest in her, as though he feels that because he sees her, he should own her. Mostly, their romance is generic, uncompelling YA fare, but occasionally, lines slipped out of Otieno's mouth that pushed things into slightly disturbing territory.
However, this is one misstep in an otherwise fantastic book. Read it for Suzume's character, for the richly painted world, for Marriott's to-die-for prose. Just don't read it for the romance.