Moon Dark Smile

S. & S./McElderry. Sept. 2022. 432p. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781534498150.
Gr 9 Up–In this lush, gender-affirming fantasy adventure, the heir to an empire escapes the constraints of palace life in order to liberate herself—and the demon who possesses her. The novel is gripping, though its complexity requires a slow start. Following up on Gratton’s Night Shine, this novel has entwined plots that find as their impetus the complex matters of consent and inheritance. Raliel and her demon struggle between their inherited duty toward each other and a chosen bond. Meanwhile, Osian, Raliel’s charming bodyguard, secretly must decide whether to continue a blood feud that will endanger his princess. More happily, the novel considers the positive legacy of Raliel’s father, an emperor whose open embrace of his gender fluidity inspires Osian to love himself. All these multilayered themes are balanced by plenty of action—after Raliel slips away from her carefully planned Heir’s Journey, she flirts with demons and warriors, battles rogue sorcerers, and magically transcends life and death. Drawing on East Asian culture and geography, the book offers tangible details, from aristocratic cosmetic rituals and the taste of candied flower petals to the iridescence of water dragons. The writing is rich and lyrical, and strong enough to survive the occasional discordant “wow” or “weird.” The novel will be easier to access for those who have already read Night Shine, but it provides plenty of treasures for first-time readers of Gratton.
VERDICT A complex, thoughtful, sexy adventure that is highly recommended for fans of Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, and Rainbow Rowell’s “Carry On” series.

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