I only just finished reading Creature of Moonlight like five minutes ago, and I’m so relieved to have finally found a book that I seriously enjoyed. This is Ms. Hahn’s debut novel, featuring a young princess, a dragon, and a kingdom rife with conflict. There were so many aspects of this novel that I really enjoyed, and the fact that it was her first book is especially impressive. I’ll try to keep this concise, but I’ve said that before and it never really happens, so we’ll just see where this goes.
Marni is a flower girl, living on the edge of the forest with her grandfather. They tend to a gorgeous garden, serving the nobles of a neighboring land, with the mysterious woods lying just shy of their backyard. Now, Marni’s parentage is unusual; her mother was a princess who fled into the woods (renowned for swallowing up young women, never to return) and came back, alive– but round with little Marni in her belly. Marni’s uncle, the current king, murdered his sister supposedly in a fit of rage, and Marni’s grandfather, the old king, threw himself in front of her tiny toddler body to protect the girl from her uncle’s sword. He gave up his kingdom for his daughter’s daughter.
Marni is inexplicably drawn to the woods; she’s wandered in and out her whole life, never straying too far for fear of losing herself. It’s the memory of Gramps that always brings her back out; she needs to be there for him, like he was there for her. Creatures of the woods try to seduce her into staying: there’s an enchanting woman who calls for Marni, better known as Tulip among the woodland creatures and the townspeople; little fairies and goblins; and a medley of other puzzling residents who tempt Marni back. But she never stays for long.
This all changes when she returns home one day to find her grandfather dead. But because of circumstances, rather than running to the woods, she makes her way to the castle.
I don’t want to reveal too much more about the plot, but I can laud the characters. Especially Marni.
I think that Marni is an avant-garde example of a strong female protagonist. It’s not that she’s particularly powerful; nor is she some chosen one, born to slay the dragon or something like that. Marni’s powerful because she stays true to herself throughout the entire book; her whole character arc is about making choices. Marni moves at her own pace despite peer pressure to conform to a standard. She knows what she wants, and she strives to achieve what she wants, when she wants it. When she chooses to go to the castle rather than the woods, its because she knows that she wants to avenge her mother, and the best way of going about it is by sticking close to her uncle. She doesn’t go to the castle because it’s what the mysterious Count of Ontrei wants her to do; she goes because she wants to.
I don’t know if I’m doing her justice.
I guess the best example I can think of, with Marni’s insistence on sticking to her decisions and doing what she believes is best for her, is in regards to her love life. From the beginning of the novel, we learn that she has reached marriageable age and has had suitors, both villagers and nobles, peasants and lords, wandering to her door to ask Gramps for her hand in marriage. One of the things that I appreciated was the fact that Gramps left the decision up to Marni; even when the powerful Count of Ontrei comes to ask for her hand, despite the fact that he is seriously considering giving Ontrei his blessing, Marni is the one who steps up and refuses him. And Gramps sticks by her side. He doesn’t try to convince her by telling her of the Lord’s wealth and influence; he simply apologizes to her suitor and turns him away.
Anyways, I was talking about her choices: so through the book, due to various circumstances, Marni comes to live in the castle and forges and alliance with the Count of Ontrei. They grow closer, of course; they spend many long evenings together, and he’s the only one of her suitors that she befriends. The Count of Ontrei woos her determinedly, and he inches his way into Marni’s heart, but she knows to hold him at a distance. She knows that he might be in it not for her, for love, but for the throne. Since Marni’s uncle, the king, and his wife, are barren, she is the only heir to the kingdom. The Count of Ontrei’s courtship, while enjoyable, is highly suspicious.
Also, he proves to be very arrogant despite his relatively good nature. There are several occasions in which he simply states that they will marry, and she quickly calls him out on it. The first time it happens, he had misunderstood their deal and assumed they would wed in order to solidify the alliance. Marni says no, but they grow closer. The Count continues proposing and while I would usually think that this is annoying, Marni doesn’t seem to mind. The book recalls that sometimes his proposals are offhanded and silly; sometimes they are serious, and they make her stomach twist with anticipation and her heart flutter with hope. But always, she refuses him.
There is one time where, after a romantic evening in which he kisses her for the first time and then she quickly kicks him out of the room after realizing how scandalous it is for them to be alone in her room, without an escort, where she begins to treat him coldly. The Count finally catches up to her and they discuss what happened, and I believe that an argument arises between the two. Lord Ontrei, loudly, says something along the lines of “we’ll talk about this later and I’ll see you in your rooms tonight,” which, as you can imagine, is humiliating for her. There are lords and ladies all about the place, all of them gossip-mongers and watching the exchange with the eagerness of vultures to carrion. Marni recognizes this (righteously furious) as Lord Ontrei staking a claim on her; dominating her. He informs them that he can come in and out of her rooms as he pleases. He paints her to be coy, but assures the world in so many words that he has her exactly where he wants her.
Marni punches him in the nose.
That was my favorite part of the story. It was such a defining moment for her– she will not take BS– and it fleshes out both characters so much. Marni, up until this point, is fairly non-confrontational and composed, but reveals just how fiery she can be. Lord Ontrei is cocky and charming, but shows us that not everything about him is goodness and light. He has a shade of darkness staining his pallet, just like every other character. I like how after this incident, he apologizes through his actions and Marni forgives him. Their love story was interesting for a YA novel because Ontrei was not entirely good, or at least, he didn’t come off as so. And it’s not like Marni hated his advances; she falls in love with him, as much as a girl of sixteen can, and he makes her happy for sure. And I think that he was starting to love her. But still, she never consents to marriage, and though he tries to persuade her, he never succeeds.
That’s one more thing to note: no one in this book is completely good or completely evil. It translates well into real life. The character closest to pure goodness is Marni’s aunt, the queen, but she does have her reservations about Marni when times get tough and doesn’t help her when the king is actively trying to assassinate her. Lord Ontrei, as we saw above, is steadfast and loyal to Marni, but can be blind with imperiousness and has on more than one occasion, revealed a sinister sliver of his personality that Marni clearly sees. The king, though he killed Marni’s mother and grievously injured her grandfather, only murdered her because he was afraid of the forest completely engulfing their lands. He had to protect his people, his kingdom, and he knew that his father wasn’t strong enough to do so. Maybe years of being king have hardened him, and he’s justified himself so much that he no longer feels guilty but I think, rather than simply not regretting the the way he slew his sister, his lack of anguish was due to a coping mechanism. Maybe he would have gone crazy if he kept thinking about what he had done. The dragon, while painted as evil for most of the book, reveals himself to be a fairly neutral character. He only takes girls into the woods who want to escape. He loved Marni’s mother the way an immortal, magical creature could love a human, but it wasn’t enough.
I found that it made the characters all the more human and relatable, and I was able to empathize with them much more than I would have a flat, evil/good person.
The Queen’s role in this story as a sort of guiding figure and mother for Marni was very sweet. Rather than siding with her husband and accusing the girl of being entirely responsible for everything wrong in the kingdom, the Queen welcomes her into the palace with open arms. She even argues with her husband about his treatment of Marni. It’s nice to see a queen who isn’t the main character, but also has autonomy. She doesn’t agree with the king, who is this constant threat to Marni’s presence; instead, she takes the exact opposite route and tries to protect Marni, even freeing her when the king sentences her to die. Also, she calls this scary antagonist Roddy, and that’s real cute.
Lastly, I want to talk about the woods: the way that Ms. Hahn paints them is so gorgeous and vibrant that I felt like I could see everything clearly. She takes great pains in making sure that the woods are not gorgeous, innocent, guileless; their beauty is eerie. It’s dangerous. The creatures that inhabit the woods seem pure, but, being otherworldly and unbound by human nature, are treacherous. The lost-girls-turned-griffins-and-pheonixes are stunning, uninhibited by mortal worry, screaming across the sky as free as they can be. The two years that Marni spends in the woods are described vividly; not so much every single thing she did, but in the emotions she felt while she was unfettered, liberated from the castle and the villagers. I wish I could put it into words but there’s really no way to understand how exquisite this sequence is, other than to read the book.
I hope that you pick this up. I think that it’s so beautiful, really reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland or fairy-tales or folklore from long ago. The beginning chapters are a teeny bit slow but by chapter three, I was hooked. And I love the female lead, the power given to the female lead, and the depth of her story. Marni’s trying to find her home in a place where dozens are offered to her, but none fit quite right. She’s a simple character, yet utterly complex; I don’t know how to define her. Read the story, because it’s an adventure that you have to traverse by yourself.