Thank you to Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing for a copy of Moon Dark Smile in exchange for an honest review.
Ever since she was a girl, Raliel Dark-Smile’s best friend has been the great demon that lives in the palace … No one understands [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.
…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. –condensed from publisher summary.
The duology in the room
Tessa Gratton‘s Moon Dark Smile is the sequel to the flipping amazing Night Shine. Together, these books make up the Five Mountains Duology. That said, I don’t think you should have read Night Shine to follow Moon Dark Smile (though you ought to read it anyway).
The word “liminal” appears no fewer than 15 times in Moon Dark Smile. It is a word I love; I live. But, for this review — and being a word-nerd — I’ve included its dictionary definition below:
The way that liminality permeates the poetry of the prose, the book’s approach to gender — to mortality even — is so profound that I found myself tearing up. I often have difficulty articulating how I feel about the spaces I occupy in the world, but Moon Dark Smile both did it for me and made me feel like I don’t have to explain anything.
At one point, a character tells Raliel that the key to making magic is to resist the binary. That’s the world this book exists in. Now, that’s not to say that Gratton is insisting everyone’s gender is nonbinary or should be; far from it — Moon Dark Smile‘s two main human characters are on the binary spectrum (one cis, one trans).
But, there is more than one way to resist the binary. Moon Dark Smile makes that abundantly clear. In Gratton’s world, boys are beautiful, and girls are handsome; demon and spirit are nearly interchangeable, and being good and nice aren’t the same.
That which we call a rose…
By any other name … would not be a rose. It would be something else. Sure, it would look, smell and taste the same, but no one in the world named after this flower would still be called Rose. Any poem using rose in its rhyme scheme would fundamentally be rewritten.
Names are powerful. We have names for the names we shed (deadname, maiden name). Rumpelstiltskin, like many characters in folklore, is defeated with his name. Names can be so profound that, for example, many Jews don’t use the Hebrew theonym outside of prayer.
The characters of Moon Dark Smile would agree. For example, Raliel doesn’t get a name at birth; she goes many years without one until she is old enough to choose one for herself. At one point, a character questions how she could have existed safely in the world for so long without one.
Moon Dark Smile declares that names are transformative. Know thyself, and thou shalt know thy name; know thy name and be thine ownself.
Should you read it?
Inasmuch as reading a book can be considered a risk, picking up an anticipated sequel is a big one. Fortunately, neither Moon Dark Smile nor Tessa Gratton disappoints. This book is for you if you enjoy beautiful words and meditations on what it means to be human bundled up in YA fantasy. By the way, I do realize I haven’t mentioned the plot.
There are two reasons; one) while I adored the story, that love was secondary to my love of the ideas presented in this work, and two) there’s content that could easily make some uncomfortable. Please read the (lightly) spoiler-ish content warnings below if you have triggers. That said, this was one of my favorite reads of the summer.
Moon Dark Smile is out on August 30, 2022. Pick up a copy at your local indie bookstore or library. 📚👹🌕
Content warnings: A character is nonconsensually possessed, and as part of that possession, the character inhabiting their body kisses another character. There is also some human-demon romance. Also: misgendering, blood, death.