The Girl Who Drank the Moon

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NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon

by Kelly Barnhill

Age: 10+

Interests: fantasy, magic, witches, dystopia, strong girls

Algonquin Books: 2016

386 pages

Also by this author: The Mostly True Story of Jack, Iron Hearted Violet, The Witch’s Boy

A town sends a baby into the forest once a year as a sacrifice to a never-seen witch… and in the forest a kindly old witch (Xan) rescues the babies and delivers them to new, loving families elsewhere. In the town a young man (Antain) knows the sacrifice is wrong and a grieving mother becomes so deranged she is locked in a tower by the town elders. The elders oversee the annual sacrifice under orders from a secretive female society – the ninja-like Sisterhood. In the forest the witch accidentally feeds the newest baby moonlight, thus enmagicking her, and decides to keep the child. Luna grows up with Xan, an immense bog monster (Glerk), and a very tiny dragon (Fyrian). While still very young, she is unable to control her own magic so Xan bottles it up inside her, to emerge on her thirteenth birthday.

The years pass, Antain marries and his infant son is next in line for the yearly sacrifice. The mother in the tower, still quite mad, develops intense magical powers in her isolation. She believes her daughter is still alive.

When Luna turns thirteen everything comes to a head. Her unexpected abilities burst out just as Xan is nearing death and unable to instruct her in their use. Antain enters the woods intending to kill the witch. Sister Ignatius, the Head of the Sisterhood, enters the woods intending to kill Antain. The grieving mother enters the woods to find her lost daughter. All storylines come to a climax as everyone meets up and secrets are revealed.

This is a very long and complex book, and I have only touched upon the basics of the plot here. There are many characters to follow and many years to follow them through. The themes of sorrow and the redemption of love, as well as the blossoming of extraordinary powers at adolescence are familiar fantasy tropes, along with the dystopian community ruled by a deceptive elite.

This is a very well-written book in a classic, poetic style, though it can be repetitive and slow, and the vocabulary may be a little challenging for 10-year-olds. For this reason, the recommended age comes with the caveat that many 10-year-olds might find it a long, tough slog. Those who love a challenge, however, should enjoy it.

Even though the multitude of characters and complications is a little mind-boggling, and several threads of the plot are incompletely explained, I thought this book could have been more effective at a shorter length. There are many repetitive passages, internal musings from the characters which don’t move the story forward at all. The wealth of strong female characters is wonderful, but there is an absolute dearth of effective male characters, apart from bog monsters and dragons. (No, now that I think of it, even the bog monster and dragon don’t do much.) The main male character is the young man Antain, a nice fellow who feels bad about the sacrifices but does absolutely nothing about it for years, until his own son is in danger. Actually, inaction is the modus operandi for almost all the characters. When faced with tragedy and mysterious occurrences they all seem to choose the option of worrying but doing nothing, as the years – and pages – pass by.

The notion of Sorrow-Eaters is particularly rich, though the conclusion of Sister Ignatius’s storyline is unsatisfying. The intense sorrow and grief felt by all the main characters at some point in their lives is what fuels the events of this tale, and though it was refreshing to have the climax resolved without a great deal of fighting, the whole thing kind of sputtered out at the end. Eliminating violence is commendable, though it is very easy for the suspense and drama to disappear along with it, which I felt happened here.

This is, of course, my own subjective opinion. There are many who love this book, which is full of compelling situations and characters, rich detail, and an epic backstory. This is a good pick for young readers who really want something to sink their teeth into and aren’t frightened off by the length.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.