There’s a sort of tangible compassion in the best retellings. A sense that you’re sharing in a story that has transformed a part of the author’s heart, that they’ve loved enough to reimagine and build from within their own voice. You get to witness this dialogue, this conversation between a creator and a narrative that has helped shape what it means for them to create. The very love of story itself feels present on the page, as does the author’s fingerprints on a story that predates us by many generations. It’s a special thing when it’s done well, and Emily X.R. Pan’s sophomore novel An Arrow to the Moon does it extremely well. Weaving a distinctively Asian-American Romeo and Juliet with the Chinese folktale of Houyi and Chang’e, she crafts a tender and thoroughly thoughtful love story.
Luna Chang and Hunter Yee are literally star-crossed, born on the same day of a rising, splitting star, on opposite sides of a bitter rivalry. Their paths meet seventeen years later, at a crucial time for both of them.
As high school graduation draws near, Luna finds herself longing for adventure. She’s spent her whole life navigating the pressures of her parents’ expectations, and she’s found it worth it, for the most part, because she loves them and the tight-knit love of her family. But now that the world is opening up before her, she realizes she’s not entirely sure who she wants to be. Meanwhile, Hunter’s father made a mistake so massive, there’s no room for Hunter to be anything other than perfect. His family is secretive now, forced to stay as private and anonymous as possible. They’re under severe financial pressures due to a mysterious debt borne from an impossible choice, and can’t draw attention to themselves as they work to avoid it. Hunter does his best to obey, mostly for the sake of his younger brother Cody.
Their paths cross when Hunter transfers to Fairbridge High. The connection between them is undeniable, despite the inexorable feud between their parents. And to make things more complicated, something strange is happening in Fairbridge—a literal opening in the earth itself. As Luna and Hunter draw closer in secret, they discover that both of them have secret powers, connections to nature, that they’ve never shared with anyone else. Luna has an affinity for a strange sort of fireflies, and Hunter has a connection with the wind that grants him perfect aim, as an archer and in every other part of his life—except when it comes to Luna. Hunter also suffers from strange afflictions, which only Luna’s breath can heal.
Though they’re connected by destiny and a force greater than they know, Pan makes it a point to establish a genuine connection between them. They make up stories together, about the world around them, the most mundane parts and the most fantastical. Stifled and shaped by their parents, within each other they get to actually be their fullest selves. I love that Pan uses her reimagining to grant them both such agency, not an easy task in a story centered on fate. It’s beautifully organic here, they’re crafted with such care. Hunter, who has this enormous power and the capacity for such violence as an archer, instead operates from a place of deep compassion. He’s driven by care, by selflessness, and he tends toward softness even at his most frustrated. And then there’s Luna, who upon learning of a great betrayal within her family, is granted the agency to be furious about it, to make choices out of her rage and hurt instead of stifling them. These characters feel like a deliberate reclamation, and it’s a warm, bright thing to watch their love develop. When they choose to have sex, it’s built on that same passion and compassion between them, mutual understanding, communication, and desire.
When Luna and Hunter meet, it’s 1991 in America. Pan builds out the world and magic of the novel through her characters, weaving a rich, intergenerational tapestry. There are eight points of view in alternating chapters, including their parents, a sibling, and even a villain, so the reader gets to experience how their lives and perspectives intersect on an intimate level. This is such an intentional choice that allows for deep context, because who Hunter and Luna are when they meet is so informed by their families and their environment. All these parents may have flaws, but they’re human too, and they’re just trying to protect their children as best as they can. The different points of view allow us to understand how their parents try and sometimes struggle to communicate, both the desires of their hearts and the stakes of their circumstances. Pan roots the conflict between the families in the very real tension between Chinese and Taiwanese identities, and how they intersect with each of the parents’ understanding and hope for the American Dream.
An Arrow to the Moon is a lush, lyrical Asian-American folktale told through sex-positive romance and an intergenerational exploration of sacrifice and love. While it begins more contemporary, expect it to expand into a more metaphysical, folkloric conclusion. If you’re worried about the ending in regards to the Romeo & Juliet elements, without any major spoilers, know that while there’s definite bittersweet ache here, but it’s certainly less of a tragedy.
This is a reimagining that successfully translates the heart of its inspirations into a propulsive contemporary story. An Arrow to the Moon deeply understands what it is to be on the brink of adulthood, with all the pressure and possibility that entails. Cleverly constructed and elegantly evoked, it brims with originality, magic, and love.
An Arrow to the Moon is published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Fil-Am and Jewish writer and poet. They have a short story forthcoming in the YA anthology Night of the Living Queers (Wednesday Books, 2023). She works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel. Find them on Twitter (@mayagittelman) or Instagram (@bookshelfbymaya).