Book: “Woven in Moonlight” by Isabel Ibnez
Publishing Info: Page Street Books, January 2020
Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst
Book Description: Ximena is the decoy Condesa, a stand-in for the last remaining Illustrian royal. Her people lost everything when the usurper, Atoc, used an ancient relic to summon ghosts and drive the Illustrians from La Ciudad. Now Ximena’s motivated by her insatiable thirst for revenge, and her rare ability to spin thread from moonlight.
When Atoc demands the real Condesa’s hand in marriage, it’s Ximena’s duty to go in her stead. She relishes the chance, as Illustrian spies have reported that Atoc’s no longer carrying his deadly relic. If Ximena can find it, she can return the true aristócrata to their rightful place.
She hunts for the relic, using her weaving ability to hide messages in tapestries for the resistance. But when a masked vigilante, a warm-hearted princess, and a thoughtful healer challenge Ximena, her mission becomes more complicated. There could be a way to overthrow the usurper without starting another war, but only if Ximena turns her back on revenge—and her Condesa.
Review: This book was a no-brainer for me to request. I mean, look at that gorgeous cover? I’m not sure I can remember a book with a cover like that; it immediately stands out and I’m sure the book will benefit from many a spur-of-the-moment pick-up while on the shelves at stores. The book description itself was also incredibly unique-sounding and dealing with a people, place, and culture that I am only passingly familiar. In many ways, the cover and description reminded me greatly of “Gods of Jade and Shadow” which I read last summer and loved. Unfortunately, this comparison didn’t hold true in the actual reading experience…
Ximena has lived most of her life pretending to be someone else, a queen, the Condesa. But mostly a queen under siege: managing dwindling supplies, sending out scouting parties, and dreaming of one day returning her people to their homeland and the city that is now occupied by the cruel king Atoc. Now, with a demanded-marriage between the two leaders of these divided peoples, Ximena has the greatest of all performances before her. She must marry the usurper and serve as an embedded spy, searching for that crack that can benefit her people and her sister-friend, the true Condesa.
Even typing up that description makes me excited about the story this could have been. Yet, alas, could have been, but wasn’t. This is one of those strange books where I question whether I read the same story others read. Currently, it’s rated over 4 on Goodreads, so many people are loving it. Perhaps I can see elements of what all of these other readers are latching on to, but it all seems like too little, too familiar, and too inexplicable to really earn those 4 stars.
The biggest strength this book has going for it is the unique setting, the unique culture (what little we really get of it), and the descriptions of Ximena’s weavings. There are some truly lovely depictions of these detailed creations, and having a mother who is an avid weaver, I could see the magic in her abilities here, even without the actual magic involved. What descriptions we received of the countryside and the city itself were intriguing, but this is also where the bare minimums began to show. I had just enough to form loose images, but I have to admit that many of these were probably drawing from stereotypical images of South American culture (there isn’t even such a thing, hence the extreme stereotype of my mental images that were just drawing from random images from other books and movies set in South American countries). I wish there had been a more detailed look into the daily life of the people, a clearer image drawn of their lives and the world they lived in. Half of the reason I picked up this book was because of the uniqueness to be had here. Finally not another European fantasy novel! But then it felt like the author only went halfway, and I was left wanting.
From the “too little” we move to the “too familiar.” Most of this plot will read as incredibly predictable to anyone who reads a lot of YA fantasy. I could quickly guess who El Lobo was as well as predict several of the other major plot points of the story. Perhaps for readers who aren’t as well versed in current YA fantasy tropes this would read better. Or even age it down to middle grade readers who simply haven’t had the time to build up these stores of memory that make stories like this feel rote and tired. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it; I’ve just read it too many times before. And when the surprise has been taken out of most of the twists, there’s not a lot of drive behind speeding through the rest of the story.
And lastly, the “too inexplicable.” I really struggled with Ximena herself. The love story was, again, predictable. And she kept referring to said characters as “the boy” which I just found cringe-worthy. I get that typing out “young man” seems kind of silly and obviously “guy” is anachronistic and has its own issues. But given the situation we’re meant to be in (she’s there to marry a king), I think we can just stick with “man” and be done with it. Regardless of age, this is an adult situation, and she’s been an adult for many years, making decisions as a ruler and now serving as a spy meant to marry the enemy. Referring to someone as “a boy” can only be a demeaning comment in these circumstances. But she uses it as a bland, seemingly objective description, and it bothered the heck out of me. If he’s “a boy,” he’s a kid and my mind will neatly file him away in the “non-love-interest” section.
Beyond that small nit-pick that I blew out of proportion with my own annoyance, it was hard to understand Ximena. We’re meant to believe that she’s been training, and acting, as the Condesa for almost all of her grown life. Not only would the real Condesa have to be well-versed in self-control, cool thinking, and precise speaking/acting, someone who grew up to serve as a decoy in this role would have to be all of that twice over. But Ximena routinely and regularly loses all self-control. It’s hard to believe that she wasn’t immediately seen through. Or, if not that, it would seem that all respect would be quickly lost for “the Condesa” as a leader since she can’t stop behaving like a rash, easily provoked youth. Ximena spends way too much time caught up in her own personal angst and far too little behaving as a true Condesa would. Sure, she always comments after the fact on how that was really “un-Condesa-like,” but that doesn’t do away with the fact that had she been trained to do this her entire life, there should be nowhere near as many outbursts as there are in the first place.
A book is always going to be a hard sell for me if I can’t connect with the POV character. I found Ximena unbelievable at best and incredibly annoying at worst. From there, the predictable story just lowered it further. I’m really sad that this wasn’t a great read for me. So many people are enjoying it, and I really wish I had read whatever book they’re loving so much. There are many great elements of this story, particularly with the snippets of the world, culture, and history we get. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of any of those things to counteract the weak main character and tired story. But, like I said, lots of people are liking it, so if you’re looking for an ownvoice, Latinx story, it might still be worth a shot.
I didn’t love this one, but a lot of people do. So I’d like to share it with someone who will appreciate it more than I was able. If this sounds like something you would enjoy, make sure to enter the giveaway for a hardback copy!
Rating 6: A really confusing read where I’m not sure what I’m missing that so many other people are loving.
“Woven in Moonlight” is on these Goodreads lists: “Latina Leads in YA and Middle Grade Fiction” and “Upcoming 2020 SFF Books with Female Leads or Co-Leads.”
Find“Woven in Moonlight” in your library using WorldCat!