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Jul 25

Book Review: The Moon King by Neil Williamson

What’s It About

[I’ve gone back to relying on back cover copy.  I apologise for my laziness]

All is not well in Glassholm. Life under the moon has always been so predictable: day follows night, wax phases to wane and, after the despair of every Darkday, a person’s mood soars to euphoria at Full. So it has been for five hundred years, ever since the Lunane captured the moon and tethered it to the city.

Now, all that has changed. Amidst rumours of unsettling dreams and strange whispering children, society is disintegrating into unrest and violence. The very sea has turned against Glassholm and the island’s luck monkeys have gone wild, distributing new fates to all and sundry. Turmoil is coming.

Three people find themselves at the eye of the storm: a former policeman investigating a series of macabre murders, an outsider artist embroiled in the murky intrigues of revolution, and a renegade engineer tasked with fixing the ancient machine at the city’s heart. Each must fulfil their role or see Glassholm shaken apart, while all are subject to the machinations of their inscrutable and eternal monarch, The Moon King

Representative Paragraph

Anton has just discovered that he’s the ruler of Glassholm.

“You say I am the Lunane,” Anton said, leaning against the desk.

Hogarth inclined his head, clearly nervous. “Of course, sir.”

“And you are my biographer?” He had been mistaken in his first assumption that the lad collected the goings on of the Palace for the newspaper scuttlebutt. They really meant the Lunane’s biographer. “You write down everything that I do?”

“Yes, sir.” This was more solid ground for the young man. He knew his own business at least. “Everything.”

Anton sneaked a look at the ledger. Hogarth’s pen was poised, having just completed a line of cramped script. It read, The Lunane questioned the biographer, Hogarth, about his work.

“Why?” Anton said.

The biographer swallowed. “Because you told me to, sir. The unbroken record of your continuity is the story of Glassholm. It’s one of the greatest symbols of our city’s magnificent constancy.”

“I don’t remember telling you to do any such thing.” Anton felt only a little ashamed to watch the boy squirm.

Should I Read It?

No.

Commentary

Neil Williamson’s The Moon King is a frustrating novel.  While I really enjoyed the set-up and ideas on display, the actual execution was sadly lacking.

In relation to the world-building I acknowledge the effort Williamson invests into making the island of Glassholm a layered, believable and unique secondary world.  In particular I loved the idea that the phase of the moon has a direct impact on the emotional state of the populace.  Whereas the full moon brings overwhelming joy and drunken frivolity, when the moon ebbs dark thoughts emerge and everyone stays indoors.  And while I did wonder whether such a bipolar society could actually function for an extended period, it was a passing thought.

I also got a kick out of the machine hidden in the dungeons of the Palace, a device that literally anchors the moon to Glassholm.  (It’s the break down of this machine, and the resultant effect on the moon and the citizens of Glassholm, that fuels the novel’s plot).  The scene where it’s first revealed is suitably grandiose and exciting:

It was an elegant behemoth of a device, a baroque construction of gleaming steel beam, arcane gearings and powerful electricals that produced a low-frequency vibration discernible through the soles of the feet. At first sight, he [Anton] thought there were some parts that might be recognisable, but making such assumptions based on guesswork was dangerous. The central portion of the construct was balanced on a framework of gimbals in such a way that the spherical body and long limb running through it that extended to the very top of the chamber could move freely in two axes. It resembled nothing so much as a brass apple that had been violently but precisely cored with an iron bar capped on each end by a smaller sphere.

But what I appreciated the most about Williamson’s world-building was that he never stopped supplying the narrative with ideas.  As the novel progresses, and more is revealed about Glassholm and its mysteries, Williamson introduces a range of exciting and wild concepts including a disembodied ruler who manipulates and possesses his citizens, creatures made entirely out of the water and a very, very large fish who holds the future of Glassholm in its belly.

Given how excited I was by the ideas and Williamson’s imagination, it’s a crushing shame that I wasn’t overwhelmed by his prose or characters.  The first quarter of the novel does a decent enough job establishing the world, the main protagonists and the overarching mystery, but it wasn’t enough to sustain my interest.  Part of this is Williamson’s earnest writing style that distinctly lacked a sense of humour.  Not that I was reading The Moon King  for a laugh, but considering the book doesn’t short shrift the reader on crazy ideas (that very, very large fish in particular) a semblance of wit might have made for a more engaging read.

Then there’s our cast of characters, in particular Anton, Lottie and John Mortlock.  Anton is an inventor, Lottie is an artist and John is a cop and I struggled to see them as anything but words on a page.  After the initial mystery surrounding the Palace staff perceiving Anton as the Lunane, his character essentially gets dragged from plot point to plot point.  Lottie has the potential to be the star of the novel but her storyline gets subsumed by the machinations of her mother’s cultish religion that believes Lottie will give birth to the Moon Queen.  Her passivity isn’t helped by her constant state of denial – she refuses to see her morning sickness and her weight gain as symptoms of pregnancy, even though it’s obvious – and her inability to stop her insane mother from taking over the pregnancy.  And then there’s John Mortlock, the clichéd embittered cop with the clichéd dark past.  He’s saddled with an awful serial killer subplot that’s seems to be there to highlight (a) the unrest in Glassholm toward the Lunane and (b) how memories of violence among the populace have been suppressed, so much so that a police officer might investigate a murder he committed and not be aware of it.   Tonally, Mortlock’s story adds a grimness to the novel that it definitely did not need.

I also had an issue with the revelation, toward the end of The Moon King, as to what the machine in the Palace actually does.  The big reveal, [SPOILERS], is that the moon is controlled and influenced by the very, very large fish I note above, called the Moon Fish.  The device has the ability to subdue the fish, keep it swimming in circles in a water catchment under the Palace, thereby anchoring the moon to Glassholm.  The problem, and why the machine has lost functionality, is that the Moon Fish is pregnant and the device hasn’t been calibrated to take this into account.  Once Anton discovers both the existence and state of the Moon Fish he realises that the fix is straightforward, modify the machine so it can accommodate the pregnancy.  Given that the solution is so simple, it wasn’t clear to me why the Lunane didn’t reveal the existence of the Moon Fish earlier in the novel?  If the answer is that the Lunane thought Anton might rebel, might let his morals about the slavery of an innocent fish stay his hand, then how did he expect the inventor to fix the machine?  Yes, I know the Lunane is mad and paranoid and incapable of trust, still holding back this critical information, considering the desperate need to fix the machine, doesn’t make sense, even for the Lunane.  It feels more like the author has intruded into the narrative rather than a choice made by the character.

While I read The Moon King I wanted to like to more.  But at the end I feel like I was admiring the ideas from a distance rather than emotionally engaging with the characters or the story.

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