The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill, was published in 2016 by Algonquin Young Readers.
Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the Forest, Xan, is kind. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey. One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. As Luna’s thirteenth birthday approaches, her magic begins to emerge—with dangerous consequences. Meanwhile, a young man from the Protectorate is determined to free his people by killing the witch. Deadly birds with uncertain intentions flock nearby. A volcano, quiet for centuries, rumbles just beneath the earth’s surface. And the woman with the Tiger’s heart is on the prowl…
I’ve heard many, many good things about The Girl Who Drank the Moon. I was excited to read it because of those good things, and also because the cover is gorgeous, and also because I like it when fantasy novels win Newbery Medals. However, I think a case of “high expectations ruin things” struck because I ended up not enjoying the book as much as I thought I would. I wasn’t disappointed, per se, simply…underwhelmed.
I’ve read a Barnhill book before (The Witch’s Boy), and I described Barnhill’s writing style as “really interesting,” a style that “I wasn’t sure whether to love or hate.” And that still holds true for this book. At times, I thought the writing was really beautiful. And then, at other times, I thought it was far too random, or too strange, and tried too hard to be poetic (all the mad woman’s scenes were like this). All of the “normal” scenes were fine (I actually really enjoyed the vibe of those scenes, a little quirky/whimsical), but the minute magic was introduced, things fell apart a little, at least for me.
The story also was a little underwhelming, in that the beginning stretched on for far too long and the solution happened too quickly. Once the ruined castle was introduced, I was hoping for some sort of “let’s do things properly this time and save the world” plot, but instead Luna stares at a witch in an extremely anticlimactic conflict (I don’t expect my kid’s stories to have brilliant magical battles, but still, I thought the villain would put up more of a fight). There’s also lots of things Barnhill included that I thought were never fully explained (which is possibly why I was expecting more out of the abandoned castle).
In addition, the message seemed oddly simplistic, and was also combined with a strange “we are all one” theme that was conveyed in that strange, floaty writing style that I didn’t really enjoy. I like beautiful writing, but a lot of the times I feel as if authors, in their attempts to write things in memorable ways, go too far and end up losing some solidness (Maggie Stiefvater writes this way; Barnhill does it slightly better). It’s hard to describe what it is that I mean.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon has a beautiful cover and at times beautiful writing. However, in some scenes I felt the writing became too over-the-top. The plot is fairly simplistic, with an uneven pace and an anticlimactic finish, and the message is simplistic as well, in addition to being vaguely New Age-y and strange. I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy this book more, as I really have heard lots of good things about it.
The Witch’s Boy, by Kelly Barnhill, was published in 2014 by Algonquin Young Readers.
When Ned and his identical twin brother tumble from their raft into a raging river, only Ned survives. Villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived. But when a Bandit King comes to steal the magic Ned’s mother, a witch, is meant to protect, it’s Ned who safeguards the magic and summons the strength to protect his family and community. Meanwhile, across the enchanted forest that borders Ned’s village lives Áine, the resourceful and pragmatic daughter of the Bandit King, who is haunted by her mother’s last words to her: “The wrong boy will save your life and you will save his.” When Áine and Ned’s paths cross, can they trust each other long enough to stop the war that’s about to boil over between their two kingdoms?
The Witch’s Boy has a really interesting writing style that I wasn’t sure whether to love or hate. At some points, I thought it was overdone, like any passage that compares Áine to a wolf or that just unnecessarily expands on something or the many, many instances of repetition. But at other points, I really enjoyed it, like all the parts with the queen and the witch and some parts with the magic. My love/hate relationship with the writing extends to the entirety of the book as well, so that I’m not sure whether I liked it or not.
One thought that stood out to me when I finished the book was, “That would have made a good trilogy.” And it’s not that I wish Barnhill had made a trilogy, since those are a little overdone and this plot in particular would have had to be quite thinned out, but I really wanted to see what this book could have been like as perhaps two books. I thought the part where Ned and the magic were combined were really interesting, and I wished that more time had been spent on that. I liked the progression of Ned and Áine’s relationship, although I thought it was done much too quickly. The plot in general was accomplished very quickly, and the last third of the book was this really slow denouement to the point where I just wondered when it would end. That’s why I think I wanted this book to be two or three books, so that I could enjoy the plot without thinking that everything was going by way too fast. But as it stands, I just spent a lot of time thinking, “Oh, that was neat. I wish that had been developed more.” And “Oh, Áine thinks that about Ned all ready? I wish that had been developed more.”
I liked the lore and the world in general, although again, I really wished it had been developed more because I liked it so much. I really liked the visual image of the words written on Ned’s skin (although I don’t know why they appeared that way and it wasn’t dwelt on, and I wish we knew what words they were) and I liked the beautiful imagery of the soul. As I mentioned above, I loved the queen and the witch’s scenes, and although they turned into giant Deus Ex Machinas, I liked the Stones as well. I just wish that, yes, it had been developed more, because I liked what I saw and I wanted to see more of it more slowly.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
His sleeve hiked over his elbow and Ned stared at his skin in amazement. His hands were covered with words. And his arms. And shoulders and belly and legs and chest. His back and face too, by the feel of it. Moving words. Words that scribbled and looped, crossed one another out, and scripted furiously forward. The words encircled each finger, blotched n the knuckles, tore across his wrists, and swirled over his arms.
He couldn’t read a word of it.
But it hurt.
The Witch’s Boy is an interesting book in that I don’t know whether I liked it or not. I liked the world and the lore, but I did not like how it was developed too quickly and went too fast to have a good impact. I loved the imagery, but I didn’t like how some of it wasn’t very well explained or dwelt on. I liked some of the writing, but I didn’t like how other bits were tedious or overly dramatic and overwritten (I thought). It’s certainly a unique book, but it also doesn’t stand out to me in any particular way beyond my conflicting feelings.