It says a lot that I look back on Luna: New Moon almost lovingly rather than remembering how maddening and demanding a novel it was. Outside of his exemplary young adult efforts, Ian McDonald has rarely been easy to read, but I found the first stretch of said text tremendously testing. Yet for every ounce of effort I expended, Luna: New Moon repaid in spades, much as the Mackenzies do with their debts.
The Mackenzies are but one of the five faithless families at the heart of Luna: Wolf Moon, the second part of McDonald’s narrative: a surprisingly accessible successor assuming you’ve finished the book it builds on. And build it does, on much of the hard work of the first: on the harsh mistress of the moon that is its desperate setting, and on the very much in motion story, which focuses on the clashing clans whose mandate is to somehow succeed on that satellite.
(Some spoilers for book one, New Moon.)
One thing Luna: Wolf Moon doesn’t share with McDonald’s last is its massive cast. It can’t, considering the catastrophic fall of the Cortas—though to call what befell them a fall isn’t quite right. The Cortas, “the lucky, flashy Cortas,” were decimated, deliberately and decisively. Like the Starks of A Song of Ice and Fire, which fantasy saga this complex and often shocking science fiction series seems to be modeled on, they had their head literally lopped off.
And they didn’t just lose their leader: they also lost their source of income, their sense of security and their seat of power. But though the Cortas are definitely down, they’re not out. The better to recover some measure of strength, the survivors of the Joao de Deus disaster have scattered.
Like Arya, little Luna looks too young to represent any kind of threat, but she’ll come into her own quickly. Robson is stronger than Luna as of the offing, but having been adopted—or taken hostage—by the Mackenzies, he’s something of a pawn, and thus this saga’s Sansa. Lucasinho of the “good sex and better baked goods” can be Bran, because his part in the plot hasn’t really been revealed; legal eagle Ariel is reminiscent of Robb Stark in that she still holds some sway over the system that underpins everything; whilst Wagner, the wolf who has channeled his bipolar disorder into a powerful pack mentality, is, of course, the Jon Snow of McDonald’s story.
Some of these similarities are slight, sure, but some are so on the nose that they must be by design, and I struggle to begrudge that, given the incredible recognition George R. R. Martin has received in recent years. As an author, Ian McDonald is from my perspective no less deserving, and if he has to follow in a footstep or two to achieve even a measure of the success Martin has, then I say okay. The Cortas aren’t carbon copies in any case; it’s only their respective roles in the whole that have me meandering about in memory lane. Well, it’s that, and a line that goes something like this: if you play the game of Luna, “you either live or the moon kills you.”
But back to the matter at hand. The Cortas may have been beaten, but they’re not broken, so when the Mackenzie family is attacked en masse by some rogue code they think the Cortas came up with, the dragons of the former family decide to entirely annihilate the latter:
“We’re businessmen,” Bryce Mackenzie says. “The Cortas are three kids, one of those so-called werewolves and a washed up ex-lawyer. So, the Cortas destroy our home. We go one better: we take their machines, their markets, their city, their people, every thing they owned and held precious and in five years no one will remember the name of Corta.”
What Bryce and his fellow Mackenzies don’t know is that another Corta—the heir to matriarch Adriana’s empire, even—is alive.
Notably, they’re not alone in not knowing. Even Lucas’ nearest and dearest consider him a casualty of the attack on their palace. But that’s all part of the plan. Having been nursed back to health by members of another of the moon’s five families—the Vorontsovs—he’s training to brave the “relentless, crushing hell” that is Earth in order to orchestrate his hellish revenge.
“Earth was undergoing a climate shift: it underpinned every aspect of the planet’s politics, from decades-deep drought in the Sahel and Western USA to the perpetual storms striking north-west Europe, flood after flood after flood. Lucas could not understand the folly of living on a world that was not under human control,” but one thing he can understand is that in uncertain times such as these, the last thing the Powers That Be need is to deal with is the “rabble of anarchists, criminals and sociopaths” that currently lord over Luna. So maybe, just maybe, Lucas can talk someone into helping him orchestrate a coup on the moon…
What the Cortas as a clan perhaps lack in originality, they more than make up for in brutality, but so too do the other four families featured here. Nary a chapter of Luna: Wolf Moon elapses without some barbaric act coming to pass, and on the rare occasions you can’t count on that, be sure there’s a betrayal at bay. This is a book about “individuals, families and corporations, all acting in [their] own self-interest,” a sickening state of affairs McDonald depicts brilliantly. Absent any sort of censure, the powerful prey on the weak, here; the rich rip off the poor; and the bad abuse the good.
It’s relentless, in a sense. Ever so exhilarating, but also exhausting, at points. But it’s not for nothing—for every plot point and every character arc there’s either payoff or the promise of—and happily, there are odd gaps in the canvas: bright spots in the blighted night that represent moments of much-needed relief. Otherwise, the incredible tension this book builds—and builds and builds and builds—could kill.
Just take my advice and remember to breathe, readers. Especially come the ending, which casts the costly wars that have played out to date as mere “skirmishes to battles that will shake the moon to its cold heart. Battles of philosophy and politics, family and privilege, power and dynasty, law and freedom, pasts and futures.”
This, then, is not the concluding volume of the duology we were promised, and allow me, at the last, to express how happy I am about that. Impossibly taut and profligate with plot, Luna: Wolf Moon wears its influence on its sleeves, and as distracting as they are, they’re going to draw in more readers than they drive away—which has got to be for the good, given the quality of this novel. Luna: New Moon was a “magnificent bastard of a book,” as I put it in my review. Part two, it’s my pleasure to tell you, is just as awesome, and just as masterfully nasty.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.