Cover Image: Moon Dark Smile

Moon Dark Smile

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Member Reviews

Thanks to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster  for providing me with an eARC of this title in exchange for an honest review. 

Moon Dark Smile is a follow up to Night Shine, which I wasn't aware of when I requested it, but I didn't have much trouble falling into the beautiful world that Tessa Gratton has woven. I'm admittedly a fan of her work and the level of inclusion, it's still not super common to see LGBT YA fantasy, but that seems to be changing in more recent years. 

Given that I haven't read the first I don't know how much I can really comment on the storyline without spoiling it for anyone who is interested, but it's definitely worth a read.
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Tess Gratton proves she is the queen of atmosphere with this lush and evocative companion to Night Shade.

A princess, a demon, and a handsome bodyguard go on a perilous journey. What ensues is a coming of age tale with a whole lot of heart. Unfortunately, I never felt particularly akin to any one of these characters. Moon Dark Smile does read on the younger side of YA, perhaps that's why I just couldn't find a wealth of connection or empathy for this cast. There's some really lovely commentary on gender and gender fluidity and in true Gratton style the world building is just wasn't enough to make this one a win for me.

If you are an atmosphere over plot reader I think this is worth the read. If you are someone who needs deep and meaningful connection with the characters perhaps proceed with caution.

Thank you NetGalley and Simon and Schuster Publishing for providing this ARC.
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~let’s steal a demon
~nonbinary emperors are an inspiration
~unicorns always know
~never go swimming without your gills
~names are everything

Moon Dark Smile is the standalone sequel to Night Shine, aka one of my favourite books of 2020 (and of the last decade, for that matter). You don’t need to have read Night Shine to enjoy Gratton’s latest exquisite fantasy, but I strongly recommend you do – both because it gives you the backstory of and insight into many of Moon Dark Smile’s characters, and because it’s an objectively wonderful book.

But we’re not here to talk about Night Shine.

Raliel is the Heir to the Moon – daughter of the Emperor, one day to be Empress herself. Unlike her three parents, she isn’t able to take off the cool poise of her public self at the end of the day – it’s not a mask for her, but all she has. Which is maybe part of the reason her only real friendship is with Moon, the Great Demon of the palace. And that friendship is a big part (but not the only part) of why she steals Moon away to try and find out how to set it free from its binding to the royal family.

(Demons and spirits in Raliel’s world have nothing to do with good or evil, btw, or any kind of heaven or hell. A spirit is a being of aether – feel free to think of it as magic or energy – and demons are just spirits whose ‘house’ – their anchor to the material world – has been destroyed. A Great Spirit is one who is extremely powerful; a Great Demon is created when a Great Spirit’s house is destroyed. They have differing abilities, but superficially aren’t hugely different.

I say this so you understand that while Moon is extremely unhuman, it isn’t evil, and what Raliel does involves no Satanic bargains or whatever. Toss those kinds of preconceptions aside for this book.)

I went into Moon Dark Smile expecting to love it – it was one of my most anticipated books of the year! – and Gratton MORE than delivered. Between the elegantly shining prose, the expanded look at one of my favourite fictional realms, a plot whose twists and turns I completely failed to predict, and a trio of main characters who defied convention, I was swooning by the time I reached chapter three.

Superficially, the plot sounds fairly conventional; Raliel goes on a quest seeking a magical goal, even if it’s not an object. It is, in large part, a journeying story, both in the literal sense and in the personal growth sense – Raliel goes questing under the cover of the traditional Heir’s Journey, and one of her goals is to figure out who she is, find a sense of self, become more. She doesn’t really know who she is, and she wants to learn. We’ve seen this character arc before.

But it stands out from typical journeying plotlines in a few ways. The first is that Raliel (and Moon, and Raliel’s guard/companion Osian) do not have a set destination, or a specific quest object they’re looking for. Raliel and Moon genuinely do not know how to alter or end the binding between Moon and the imperial family, and they don’t have a single wise individual they can set out to talk to about it. This could have resulted in a very vague, lacking-direction kind of plot, but it didn’t; it felt very believable to me, and made Raliel and Moon even more sympathetic. It’s too easy to imagine being in their shoes and just having absolutely no idea where to even start, despite all their passion and determination to accomplish their goal.

The second thing is the emotional journey aspect, the development of the characters and the dynamics between them over the course of their travels. I adored all three of the main cast – Raliel, Moon, and Osian – but the way the relationships between them evolved? I didn’t see any of it coming. Things I expected or took for granted – because things always go That Way, especially in YA – didn’t happen at all, and I was completely blindsided (albeit delighted!) by other developments. I can’t emphasise enough how much I love to be surprised, how much I appreciate it when storytellers don’t take the expected, conventional approach or route – and I should have known better, because Gratton’s stories are always packed full of the best kind of surprises.

Onto the characters themselves. I had immense sympathy for Raliel, who is cool and reserved because she doesn’t know how not to be – who is aware of her privilege, but also fiercely devoted to her responsibilities, including responsibilities she discovers or takes on for herself; no one ever tells her that Moon’s situation is unjust, but once she realises that it is, nothing is going to stop her from fixing it. As someone who also struggles to emote correctly and quit repressing my feelings, watching her learn how to laugh? Was absolutely wonderful.

Osian is a cinnamon roll. Enough said.

Moon is unabashedly my favourite character; feral, strange, vicious, selfish, and very very alien – what’s not to love? I adore non-human characters who really feel not-human-at-all, and at no point can the reader ever forget that Moon is seriously Other. Sometimes that manifests in lines that make you laugh; sometimes it’ll have your jaw dropping; more than once it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Moon is not nice, and dear gods no one should forget that – but Moon is just so fascinating, and this is very much a story of its personal growth too, it figuring out who and what it wants to be, if it does eventually get a say in those things.

And it was a pure joy to see old favourites again; Night Shine and Shadows make reappearances in this book, as do Kirin and Sky – now joined by Kirin’s second consort, Elegant Waters, who is absolutely fabulous in every way – and even the Selegan! I was so happy to get updates on them all, twenty years after the end of the previous book.

But the heart of Moon Dark Smile is, understandably, the relationship between Raliel and Moon, which I long to write an essay on; the possessiveness and the passion, the initially forced codependency that becomes a silky deliciousness for them both, the sensuality of it (and I mean that literally, in how they explore and experience and share physical sensation and stimuli together), the not-insignificant thread of danger winding through it all. It’s a love story, but a love story for those of us who love monsters, who want to be them or embrace them or both, and I loved every second of it.

I would call this a silken book rather than a slow one; it never felt meandering to me, or like there was nothing pushing the story onwards. There are threats and danger aplenty, monsters and sorcerers and deadly magics; we have a number of what might be called action scenes, and although none of them are conventional battles, they still had me glued to the pages, holding my breath. At the same time, a lot of Moon Dark Smile felt languid, lingering, luxuriating in a kind of decadent richness that flowed between introspection and sensory celebration, magical experimentation and character-and-relationship-development, exploring and discovering the potential of the characters and of magic.

This is a story that makes you feel; it had me laughing and biting my nails, swearing and cheering, raging and panicking, weepy-eyed and grinning. But most of all, it left me glowing. I am EXULTANT that Gratton decided to come back to this world, and I could not be happier with this book. There’s nothing I’d critique, nothing I’d change; I want to hug it to my chest and spin around with glittery GLEE. Moon Dark Smile is exquisite and extraordinary, idiosyncratic as only a Gratton book can be – and as expected, it’s my newest favourite fantasy.

Give it a chance, and it’ll be your newest fave too.
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Thank you to Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing for a copy of Moon Dark Smile in exchange for an honest review.

The duology in the room

Tessa Gratton's Moon Dark Smile is the sequel to the flipping amazing Night Shine. Together, these books make up the Five Mountains Duology. That said, I don't think you need to have read Night Shine to follow Moon Dark Smile (though you ought to read it anyway). 

Liminal spaces

The word "liminal" appears no fewer than 15 times in Moon Dark Smile. It is a word I love, I live. But, for the purposes of this review -- and being a word-nerd -- I've included its dictionary definition below:

Source: Merriam Webster
The way that liminality permeates the poetry of the prose, the book's approach to gender -- to mortality even -- is so profound that I found myself tearing up. I often have difficulty articulating how I feel about the spaces I occupy in the world, but Moon Dark Smile both did it for me and made me feel like I don't have to explain anything.

At one point, a character tells Raliel that the key to making magic is to resist the binary. That's the world this book exists in. Now, that's not to say that Gratton is insisting everyone's gender is nonbinary or should be; far from it -- Moon Dark Smile's two main human characters are on the binary spectrum (one cis, one trans). 

But, there is more than one way to resist the binary. Moon Dark Smile makes that abundantly clear. In Gratton's world, boys are beautiful and girls are handsome; demon and spirit are nearly interchangeable; and being good and being nice really aren't the same. 

That which we call a rose ...

By any other name ... would not be a rose. It would literally be something else. Sure, it would look, smell and taste the same, but no one in the world named after this flower would still be named Rose. Any poem using rose in its rhyme scheme would fundamentally be rewritten. 

Names are powerful. We have names for the names we shed (deadname, maiden name). Rumpelstiltskin, like many characters in folklore, is defeated just with his name. Names can be so profound that, for example, many Jews don't use the Hebrew theonym outside of prayer. 

The characters of Moon Dark Smile would agree. For example, Raliel doesn't get a name at birth; she goes many years without one until she is old enough to choose one for herself. At one point, a character questions how she could have existed safely in the world for so long without one. 

Moon Dark Smile declares that names are transformative. Know thyself, and thou shalt know thy name; know thy name and be thine ownself. 

Should you read it?

Inasmuch as reading a book can be considered a risk, picking up an anticipated sequel is a big one. Fortunately, neither Moon Dark Smile nor Tessa Gratton disappoints. If you enjoy beautiful words and meditations on what it means to be human bundled up in YA fantasy, this book is for you. By the way, I do realize I haven't mentioned the plot.

There are two reasons; one) while I adored the story, that love was secondary to my love of the ideas presented in this work, and two) there's content that could easily make some uncomfortable. Please read the (lightly) spoiler-ish content warnings below if you have triggers. That said, this was one of my favorite reads of the summer. 

Moon Dark Smile is out on August 30th, 2022. Pick up a copy at your local indie bookstore or library. 📚👹🌕

Content warnings: A character is nonconsensually possessed, and as part of that possession, the character inhabiting their body kisses another character. There is also some human-demon romance. Also: misgendering, blood, death.
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have just now come to the conclusion yesterday that Tessa Gratton is hit or miss for me. I was SO excited for Moon Dark Smile. The pitch absolutely appealed to me. Come on, Laini Taylor is one of the comps. And previously I had really enjoyed Blood Magic. It turns out, however, that Moon Dark Smile was a miss for me. I don’t know if it is due to the book itself or to some outside factors.

Moon Dark Smile is a companion novel to Night Shine. Going into this, I had not previously read Night Shine. I am not really sure if that context was necessary. However, this book follows Raliel Dark Smile, who is the Heir. She leaves the Palace to go on a journey throughout the kingdom. The alleged purpose is to meet the people of the kingdom she will be ruling, but honestly she really goes because she wants to find a way to free the Palace demon named Moon who has come with her. Additionally, a guard comes with her — Osian — who is demon kissed – meaning he has a special ability. Raliel might not actually be able to trust Osian though.

One great thing about this book is that it does have a lot of gender diversity. There’s gender fluid characters and transgender characters. Representation occurs within this book. However. The pacing of this book was SO SLOW. It would take me an hour to get through 20 pages and normally I can knock that out in like 10 minutes. Admittedly, I read this while home alone for the week with my young children. So, yes, there were distractions but at the same time, I started a new book and am just flying through it under the same circumstances. I found that I didn’t really care for any of the characters. I had a tough time picturing what was going on. It is so wonderful people will see themselves reflected in this book, but for me, Moon Dark Smile was not exactly my favorite.
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A whimsical and dark installement to the Nightshine series. A princess leaves on her coming of age journey....and takes the palace demon with her. Raliel, naming herself after a long dead dragon, pockets the demon away to use her journey to find a way to free the demon, Moon from it's prison in the palace. We see how Moon came to be, who he became and slumbered as, and was awoken by a fellow demon, reborn named Nighshine, and a young princess named after a dragon. This work is about naming, and choices. The inherent right to chose for one's self, and for a creature that was deemed unable to love, to give one of the most difficult aspects of love, Sacrifice for his human. The parameters don't feel hard, but rather ephemeral and squishy, which I suppose, is the point. The magic we make rarely is easily defined. The path we set for our lives is one we have to journey through, mostly alone, unless we are blessed enough to have a companion who will walk that journey alongside us. This is a work unlike anything else you'll read, rest assured.
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I stayed up until 5am to finish this book. The first half felt a little slow, despite the beautiful writing I was wishing it was shorter. But then it kinda picked up between Moon and Raliel and I got super invested. I loved the romance in this book, the unique magic systems with spirits, demons & sorcerers, and the LGBT+ rep. I was so sad when it ended and then really happy when I realized there's a book before this to read! This read well as a standalone though. I'd recommend for fans of daughter of the moon goddess or iron widow.
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this was a great sequel to the Night Shine book. this was a beautifully done fantasy novel, the characters were what I was looking for in this type of book. I enjoyed the way Tessa Gratton was able to create a interesting world with her words. This wasn't my first book with her and I really enjoyed what I read back then. I look forward to read more works of hers.

"But this was her only Heir’s Journey. If they did not manage to change the palace-amulet, this was their last chance to be a little free. Moon had said, We have been gone nearly two months. There should be snow already in the northern mountains. By the gentle longing in its voice, Raliel understood it wished to keep going too."
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Thank you NetGalley and Simon and Schuster Publishing for providing this ARC.

Moon Dark Smile has all the elements of a great fantasy: expansive and intriguing magic system, a young Heir to the throne on a journey of self discovery, and absolutely stunning writing. This book also explored gender and gender expression, which was really great to see in a YA book. I loved the concept of wearing specific rings to denote gender (or lack of) and that it was standard practice to heed to the corresponding pronouns (if any.)

With all of the great and interesting aspects of this book being said, it just wasn't for me. Though the characters were 18 (I think?) they felt a little young to me and perhaps in the old age of my 20s I have more trouble identifying with them. I'm still giving Moon Dark Smile 3-3.5 stars; I think readers, especially if they were fans of Night Shine, will love this book. I also think the gender expression aspect is so unique and lovely to see that I would hate to turn readers off simply because this book isn't for me.
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Moon Dark Smile by Tessa Gratton 
“With a name, one could remake oneself.” 
    I first would like to thank Tessa Gratton, Simon & Schuster, and Netgalley for the eARC. I loved the genderfluid and nonbinary characters and names. The details for the world and plot were really vivid; it made it easy to imagine what was happening in the book. I also loved the different names that Gratton came up with for the characters, it was a little difficult to tell who was who sometimes. 
Overall, it was a very interesting book and absolutely great representation; with an amazing storyline.
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Thank you Netgalley and Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing/Margaret K. McElderry Books for allowing me to read and review this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Moon Dark Smile is a continuation of Night Shine which came out a few years ago. I didn't realize this when I first requested to read Moon Dark Smile but it didn't hinder my reading experience too much. Though it probably would have enhanced it.

Tessa Gratton always writes such beautifully written characters. This story is lush with LGBTQ representation and exciting world building.

I'm going to go back and read Night Shine.

4 stars
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I was lucky enough to read an ARC of Moon Dark Smile from NetGalley. I'm so grateful I got approved, and once I started, I read the book over just two days.

Moon Dark Smile takes place a generation after Night Shine. The main character Raliel is the daughter of characters from book one, Kirin, Sky, and their wife Elegant Waters. Raliel is best friends with the great demon of the palace, who goes by Moon. Raliel and Moon have some dangerous goals, and will do whatever they can to accomplish them. They are accompanied on their mission by a demon-kissed boy named Osian who has secrets that the reader knows but Raliel and Moon don't. I don't want to say much more about what happens so that I don't spoil the book (since it doesn't come out until August).

I will say that I absolutely loved Raliel and Moon as main characters. Raliel can be cold and ruthless, but she does it because she feels so much. It's the way she copes with the rest of the world. How she visualizes ice in her body kinda reminds me of Iseult in the Witchlands books (in a good way). We also get some great cameos from characters of Night Shine. You definitely want to have read that first before reading Moon Dark Smile.

As you might have expected from the first book, Moon Dark Smile plays with gender and sexuality in interesting ways. Not only to the characters have queer identities, gender fluidity is almost built into the magic system. I think the book does a really good job handling the topic, and hope that genderqueer readers will find pieces of themselves in the characters.

This is all to say, I loved the book and think you will too when it comes out in August!
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Tessa Gratton has authored “The Queens of Innis Lear” and “Lady Hotspur” as well as other YA series and short stories that have been translated into twenty-two languages. She currently lives along the Kansas prairies with her wife. “Moon Dark Smile” is perfect for fans of “Descendant of the Crane” and “Girl, Serpent, Thorn.”

Set in a lush YA fantasy world, “Moon Dark Smile” follows an heir to an empire who tests the bonds of her freedom when she befriends the demon living within the palace. This story features non-binary and gender-fluid characters, and a variety of queer romantic relationships, all of which are accepted and portrayed positively...

(read more in the link to find out about "Moon Dark Smile")
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