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.