Book Review: Ian McDonald’s Luna: Wolf Moon

Ian McDonald’s “Wolf Moon” manages this rarest of tricks: a middle book that is clearly superior to its predecessor.

Luna: New Moon” was a tough read. For the first few hundred pages, I was waiting for the story to start. After another few hundred, I was anxiously hoping that there would, in fact be a story. A hundred pages before the end, I just kept going, because if you having gone to the trouble of reading the entire phone book, you’re not going to stop at “W”, now are you? Then suddenly and without warning all hell broke lose, and positively made the red wedding look like a minor plot twist. Then it ends.

The first book meticulously introduced us to a new world, a new society, its cast of movers and shakers, its ugly underbelly, its family rivalries, architecture, legal system and short history.  Lady Luna is indeed a harsh mistress. Where other books introduce you to the one or two main protagonists and a small cast of supporting roles before getting on with the plot, New Moon introduces a cast of several dozen fully fleshed out characters, all with their own narratives, agendas, history, alliances, strengths and foibles. Moreover, those character introductions are not all clustered at the beginning of the book, but continue throughout; often at the most inconvenient of times.

Ultimately, this is a frustrating conceit that makes you want to throw the novel (or in my case my Kindle) against the wall. Just when something is finally about to happen, McDonald switches to another storyline entirely. While this works great as a narrative vehicle when you have two or three intertwining narrations, once you pass the point of having a dozen or more, the pent up frustration of all those interrupted arcs quickly adds up. This is in no way aided by McDonald’s propensity for endless of tedious descriptions. The texture and scent of the amuse bouches at a society event escapes his attentions no more than the subtleties of their attire and (most egregiously) their bodies and sexual exploits. There is a deeply voyeuristic quality to the endless, tediously anthropological descriptions of body shaving, oiling and (admittedly original and varied) sex acts and toys, which however never, ever crosses the line to being even mildly erotic. This voyeuristic tone is, however, just as evident and very much more enjoyable in the descriptions of lunar architecture and Lady Luna herself.

So I hated it, right?

Perhaps a little, but in the end it is all totally worth it. The very same qualities that make the first book an agonizingly slow read, also make it into a towering achievement. The Luna books are more than a plot set in an alternate universe; more than just “a star wars story”. They feel like all the plots set in one of the most fully realized worlds ever attempted. Tolkien decided to put much of his world building into the appendices to at least keep the plot moving forwards at a leisurely pace. McDonald decided to work every last detail of the appendices into the story itself.

Ultimately the first book was the price that you pay for setting up the plot and that is largely why the second volume is so much better. There is a large cast of characters that you care for, none of them either truly good nor truly bad. There are games of thrones being playing out, personal vendettas, empires forming and collapsing, lives being lead and lives coming to an abrupt and often gruesome end.

The second book is overwhelmingly about revenge and conflict; the old order that was painstakingly constructed in the first book is torn down and everything is in flux.

In this second book, McDonald manages to tame his instinct to go off on wild tangents and frustrate the reader by leaving every storyline as soon as it becomes interesting, often deciding instead to stay on the individual strands of the story for several chapters until its tensions have slackened enough to make the transition to another strand more bearable for the reader. Furthermore. McDonald does not constantly introduce new characters from out of nowhere, but instead visits the viewpoints of previously minor characters and gives them more depth. Towards the end of the second book, everything is set up a third volume.

The Luna cycle is well worth your time and I personally cannot wait to get my hands on the third, and presumably final, installment. I wish I had known when I started reading that the books would eventually pay back all my efforts.

This is one of the finest exercises in world building ever attempted by any author and like the Mackenzies it “pays back three times”.