Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Book Review: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

This book is such a fun, wild ride. It starts off with a dystopia narrative: evil leaders of a small secluded town keep control over their people by inventing an evil witch who demands their youngest baby to be left for her on the same day every year... but the twist! There actually IS a witch. And every year she comes and rescues the poor babe who is left on the edge of the wood to die. She takes the babies on the harrowing journey across the woods and to the "free towns" where they are adopted and loved. 

Throughout, there is magic spun through the story in beautiful, fantastic ways. It causes a contrast between the dark and gloomy town and the other side of the story--certainly not a utopia by any means, but it is bright and loving and exotic and full of joy and adventure. This perhaps wasn't always the case, but one year the witch (Xan) is distracted by the baby she is rescuing and feeds her moonlight instead of starlight--a dangerous thing to do, since moonlight is highly magical, and for a baby to eat SO much of it... well, Luna became a truly magical child. 

Surprisingly, this was also Xan's experience, being enmagicked as a child. So we see that it is not only a joyful, powerful life that Luna is given, but also a heavy burden of hundreds of years to try to live well. Xan and Luna are opposites in many ways. Luna wants to know everything, while Xan has a passion for forgetting things. Luna is young, Xan is impossibly old. Kelly Barnhill weaves her story around this pair and surrounds them with a superb cast of side characters (some of my personal favorites of the book) that make the book well worth reading. 

My one disappointment of the book is the ending. It wasn't a bad ending by any means. It merely could have been much better and more meaningful. The last several scenes are all about love--love expands your heart and your mind and forgiveness and makes things expand to infinity. It heals! It creates! etc. . . But there were so many other things that I wanted to see in the conclusion of the story. The love theme is great, but it needed more, considering the complexity of the story and the characters.

There were SO MANY opportunities for Barnhill to connect pieces of magic and story hundreds of years apart, and it seems like she missed them, or at least didn't exploit them in the meaningful way that I hoped for. The importance of forgetting and remembering should certainly have returned in the end. The mantra "Don't forget. I mean it," is repeated many times. (This being a message from Xan's mentor to her.) It seemed obvious that the purpose of this message would be explained in the conclusion. And I expected Luna to take up Xan's mantle and remember (or learn for the first time) the things that Xan insisted on forgetting. But no, there's no ultimate explanation of what that message meant. Luna doesn't go off to search for the missing stone doors to the hidden castle that Xan's mentor protected in his dying hours. The door and the castle seemed to play an important role in the story, but we never find out exactly what it's all about.

Why not? Because in the end, love is enough? Because Luna found her crazed mother and is trying to heal her? Because they rescued the town from its evil rulers and Truth is becoming known?  

Maybe. All those things are good, and I enjoyed reading about them. Nevertheless, it makes a mediocre end to an otherwise fabulous book. The first 43 of the 48 chapters made me think this was going to be a read-every-year, favorite book of 2016. And then the last 5 chapters were so full of love and so lacking in explanation, it left something of a disappointed, flat taste in my mouth. As it is, I will probably read it again sometime, but not every year. And though I like it very much, it's not my favorite book of 2016. But I will certainly recommend it to many people. I might even put it under the tree this Christmas! It is after all, a fun, wild ride. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Book Review: The Inquisitor's Tale by Adam Gidwitz

It should not be surprising that The Inquisitor's Tale is about the Dark Ages, when the Inquisition rooted out and punished anything that the Pope determined was heresy. It is also not surprising that Gidwitz would employ a style of storytelling reminiscent of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Each chapter is a tale told by one or other patron of a local inn in rural France. 

What is surprising is that Gidwitz, with six years of research under his belt, does not try to write a history book for children. Instead, he paints a deeply informed picture of the Dark Ages that is also interesting and accessible. He taps in to the corner of the imagination that transcends time and allows someone in the modern information age to truly understand a few of the difficulties and delights of a life 800 years ago. You can trust the background details to be true and accurate of the time period. Yes, the Kings and Queens had a corner of the banquet hall designated for their bladder relief during mealtimes. Yes, peasants slept with their cow at night for warmth. Yes, people from all stations of life gathered at inns to drink ale, warm themselves by a fire, and swap stories till past their bedtime. (Some things never change!) 

The thing I loved most about this book is that I knew I was learning so much about the Dark Ages without even trying. I didn't have to memorize dates or names, but I now know who the king of France was during that time period (and his mother and wife too!) After reading this book, I have a much better sense of what life was like back then. We've gained almost everything. (It was the Dark Ages, after all.) But we've lost things too. Who knows herb lore and which plants can have which effect on the body? (I know some do, but not many!) Who has seen or used a handmade, illuminated book? Who has seen a book that took 40 years to make and was a work of art worthy of sitting next to the Mona Lisa? 

The three children of this story could not have been more unlikely friends. William is a giant of an oblate (basically a monk's understudy) who loved books and learning. Jacob is a Jew which was almost equal to the Devil in that culture. And Jeanne is a peasant girl who has fits in which she sees visions that often show her something of the future. Even so, they are thrown together and they do miracles. ("Really?", you say. Well, it all depends on your perspective, just as it did in the Dark Ages. Maybe they were just normal people. Maybe they were heathen witches. Maybe they were saints doing the work of the Almighty.)

Gidwitz cleverly weaves together truth and tale and produces a legend. A wonderful beautiful legend, illustrating perfectly the Biblical principle: God uses the weak things of the earth to shame the strong; He uses the humble things of the earth to shame the proud. Through the story, he weaves in elements of more Biblical principles: Forgive, love, and care for your enemies. Trust that God sees more than you see, and that there is a reason and maybe even beauty in the pain we experience on earth. (The Troubadour's Tale got it right when he said that God was singing the song of the world. The pain of life and loss of loved ones is never beautiful, but the song that is telling the story might still be....will we trust that it is?) Truly, these are the hard questions of life--not just life in the Dark Ages. They are questions of life now, where terrorists murder, and political battles are full of hatred and blindness, and people are afraid of showing too much of themselves to others. 

William, Jeanne, and Jacob experienced these things in their world. People murdered without reason. (Jacob's parents died this way.) Political battles were blinded by hatred. (William saw the horror of thousands of books being burned and knowledge lost just because the Christians hated the Jews.) And Jeanne. She was afraid of her shadow--the shadow of her fits and dreams and of the people that would burn her as a witch because of what they did not understand.  At any rate, these unlikely friends protect each other and comfort each other through loss and loneliness. And together, they make the hardest choice of all: to do what they believe is right no matter the consequences. This is still a decision children (and adults too) have to make. But back then no one had any "human rights". There was no "social justice." There was no "due process" of law and order. In the culture of the Dark Ages, "Might made right"...with a bit of superstition thrown in. So the rule of the land was more like: "Might makes right and saves your soul from eternal fire and torture where bloodthirsty demons will shred the flesh off your living bones." 

There's something admirable and stunning about someone following truth when "Might" is on the side of the lie. The way these children do. The way we could. Admirable. Or crazy. Either way, it makes a good story.