I’ve spent the several days since I read Night Shine, Tessa Gratton’s latest YA novel, trying to articulate to myself why I found it much more annoying than satisfying. On the face of it, a novel with a queer protagonist, a queer prince, and two queer love stories—along with coming-of-age and plenty of magic—should be precisely my sort of thing, or at least the sort of thing I’m predisposed to like. But I don’t, really, and I’m finding it hard to put my finger on just why exactly that is.
It may be that living through our current pandemic moment has altered my ability to enjoy reading, but a) I’ve enjoyed some things, and b) I’ve always been cranky, and I seem to be getting crankier as I grow older, this might just be a case of a mismatch of book and reader. Or to put it differently: wrong desk, wrong day.
(Review contains spoilers.)
The Empire Between Five Mountains is ruled by the Empress with the Moon in Her Mouth. The Fifth Mountain, once home to a living spirit, had its spirit die and become a great demon, which became the partner of a sorceress—a woman now known as The Sorceress Who Eats Girls, so-called because she takes the hearts of girls, apparently in order to eat them.
Kirin Dark-Smile is the Heir to the Moon. Nothing is a young woman in the palace with no parents and no family, Prince Kirin’s creature and companion. But when an imposter returns in Kirin’s place—an imposter capable of fooling Kirin’s bodyguard and sometime lover, The Day The Sky Opened—Nothing is the only one who knows that it’s not Kirin. Kirin has in fact been taken by The Sorceress Who Eats Girls, because Kirin is not just a prince: Kirin is “the Prince Who Is Also A Maiden”, a genderqueer prince who is sometimes a girl, sometimes a boy, and sometimes just Kirin. It’s up to Nothing and The Day The Sky Opened (Sky) to get him back.
But on their journey, Nothing discovers that she is the great demon of the Fifth Mountain, reborn into the body of a young woman thanks to the efforts of The Sorceress Who Eats Girls. The Sorceress Who Eats Girls was married to that great demon—loved it with an all-consuming passion, and one that endures yet. With the demon gone from the mountain, the sorceress takes girls’ hearts to maintain the mountain’s power, and her own, while she searches for the demon that she loves. Once she discovers that Nothing is that demon reborn, she sets out to convince Nothing to stay with her—and Nothing would be easy to convince: the sorceress is attractive and interesting and in the confines of the Fifth Mountain, Nothing feels both powerful and at home.
But as a demon, Nothing can be bound by anyone who knows her true name—and Kirin, unknowing, bound Nothing when they were both children. Nothing’s loyalty to Kirin is not freely given, though she wants it to be, and once she leaves the mountain to help escort Kirin home, Kirin uses both her name and her trust to keep her by Kirin’s side. When Nothing—now to be known as Shine—discovers this, she races to the Fifth Mountain to stand with the sorceress whom she has freely chosen and to defend her against the enemies who would destroy her.
Night Shine’s prose is lush and engaging, lively and descriptive, and its characters are vividly sketched. But to me it feels more like a collection of incidents and events, things happening one after the other, than a unified narrative. Perhaps this is because, for the most part, I don’t feel much connection to the characters or any solid understanding of their motivations: Kirin is a self-absorbed ass—novel, with a genderqueer character!—who scarcely deserves anyone’s loyalty or affection, based on their actions here. I don’t see what Sky sees in them. (Loyalty has to be reciprocal, or it’s just service and entitlement.) And the Sorceress Who Eats Girls is not very understandable to me as a romantic prospect: honestly, I only murdered a dozen girls who didn’t know what they were agreeing to and it was for us! so that we could be alive and together! is close to the ultimate in relationship red flags. (Murder isn’t sexy. My wife informs me that while she loves me very much, she would divorce me in a heartbeat if I went off to murder people. Yes, even if they deserved it.) But then, I’ve generally been baffled by the attractiveness of murdering vampires as objects of romantic interest, too, so clearly I’m missing whatever quirk of nature finds fictional murder attractive.
Night Shine is easy to read, with a style partly reminiscent of the fairytale and worldbuilding that feels more inspired by anime than more traditional fantasy. It’s an interesting novel, and I’m delighted to see it add to our current floruit of queer fantasy—even if it leaves me, personally, unsatisfied with its choices.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.