Monday, June 24, 2024

Book Review: Moonstorm by Yoon Ha Lee

 Sometimes it's impossible to resist comparisons.

I loved Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire series. They have a gloriously sink or swim quality to the worldbuilding that is somewhat marmite, but worked extremely well for me. Do I have any idea what exactly calendrical rot is, or what the weird gun thing looked like? No, no I do not. But do I care? Also no. It's a series that delights in immersion, and if you're willing to roll with it, the rewards are really rather worth the cost of entry.

But why does that matter for Moonstorm, an unrelated novel starting a new series, in a totally different, world? Well... it shouldn't. But it was impossible, while reading, not to compare it to the author's previous work. And it was not a totally flattering comparison.

Moonstorm follows Hwa Young, a teenager in a military academy whose most treasured dream is to become a lancer pilot - elite fighters in spacefaring mechs that are gundams by another name - after being rescued by a lancer pilot from the destruction of her moon. To do this, she must keep hidden her background from that moon, as a clanner, a group deeply opposed to the empire, and whose differing beliefs generate a different gravity from the empire's own rituals - a difference that cannot coexist. After an unexpected attack on the city her academy is based in, she ends up in the imperial fleet with a shot at a lancer and her dream... but all is not what it may seem. Shenigans ensue, and so forth.

At first glance, this seems much more adventure plotty than Lee's other work, but if you stop to think about that ritually generated gravity, you might begin to see the connection to Machineries of Empire, a series also interested in collective rituals, heresy and culture clash in a very literal sense. While there it may be calendars and here gravity, much of the core themes feel similar, and in theory, I was just as interested in this... except that it rather suffers in the execution.

Where Machineries forces you to go with the flow, eschews explanation and laughs in the face of exposition, Moonstorm stops, especially early on, to try to hold your hand through all of the tech and ritual. Lee wants you to pause and understand (or understand as much as is ever the case in the sort of space opera with alternate world future tech spaceships). We get a protagonist - a young protagonist, 15 years old for much of the story - who has a limited view on her world, both from her age and her unusual background, and has to learn about it at pace to manage her way through the situation she lands in. And so we get a story that watches her do just that, watches her ask questions, gets her rote responses, exposition, and authority figures or friends with implausible hacking skills just... explaining stuff. Even basic things. And it just does not work for me at all. There's so much in tone, in setting and in theme that evokes Lee's previous work, but does not capture the magic of that glorious opaque setting, and so forever feels overshadowed by it, especially when the explanations veer towards the patronising. And I get it! The protagonist is a random teenager! She will need many things explained to her... but not quite so many things as she gets, and it starts to push the boundaries of my suspension of disbelief at times, that the scope of her ignorance and her role in the story, in the military she's being pulled into, can coexist as they do.

And then... the explanations also don't quite go far enough. We exist in this strange, awkward hinterland of having had some things pointed out to us, being handheld through them, but never having any of them developed in any sort of depth. The ideas around gravity being generated by collective will - by community unity - are genuinely fascinating, and I would really love to see these dug into deeper, especially as they become critical to the plot in later parts of the book. But they're just... not. I understand the basics, but have none of the development that might have made those explanations all worthwhile. Similarly the lancers - we know what they are, more or less, but there ends our understanding of them within the setting. There's a vague sense that being a pilot in one is prestigious in some way, but no real development of that meaning. What does it mean, socially, militarily, and so forth, for Hwa to become one? Where do they fit into the wider world? So many questions of a sort that, in other stories, I've seen Lee answer with deft understatements, building up an intuitive picture of a world fully lived in by actual people, with actual lives. And so absent here.

Alas, this is not the only issue the story faces. Hwa is something of a difficult protagonist in a number of ways. Her motivations and choices seem erratic, sometimes including behaviour that goes against her own aims without being emotionally grounded in the story. I don't mind characters who act out of character, if the story does the work of showing why, of giving the reader the feeling of their choice-making. It's just when it feels pulled out of nowhere, and you end up with a character who lacks a coherent core, because they're never allowed to settle into themselves. Add to this her emotional uh... inexperience, let's say, and it makes her something of a struggle to sit with - the other characters are such closed books to her, and our view of the story so limited to her own scope of understanding, that I felt claustrophobic within that perspective at times, desperate to see the world through another character's eyes, to get a more grounded, more nuanced awareness of what was going on. Not even in the sense of grander events or understanding politics. I just wanted someone who wasn't quite so oblivious to the threads of social nuance that were, presumably, happening around her.

What we get of the secondary characters is so tantalising as well! I want to know them! There's Bae, the aloof rival who we start to get the tiniest hints of a more humane core to by the end of the book. There's Eun, the more experience lancer in their squad who clearly has trauma from previous battles, his own outlook on military politics and the role of lancers, and just a wholeass personality... and we barely get access to them because Hwa's interest in the world is so cored down to a very few people and things. She supposedly - by her own words and thoughts - feels a quick and deep emotional connection to her squad, feels bereft when separated from them, but when members of that squad face or suffer catastrophe, we see none of it in Hwa's emotional narrative. Nothing lingers. Nothing seems to touch her. Even Geum, Hwa's best, closest, dearest and only friend, often remarked as precisely such, shows up sporadically in both the narrative and Hwa's thoughts, when zie would be of use to the plot, and then is gone again until the next time zie's needed.

And that's the thing - this is an intensely plot-driven narrative, to the detriment of nearly all else. The world-building gets somewhat short shrift, despite the potentially interesting hooks, and the politics of both the military and the broader world pop up only as strictly necessary. The people are puppets moved to position to allow the plot to progress, and then discarded off stage in between times, allowed very little for themselves beyond their role in Hwa's narrative. Which could work - and has, in many stories - except the plot isn't all that great either. There are a lot of fairly predictable turns to it, following the well-trodden path of many an adventure story of an outsider trying to fit in and finding out the world is not entirely what they thought it was. Almost all of the twists, such as they are, feel very well telegraphed ahead of time, and so there's none of the suspense that this kind of action romp would truly need to propel it forwards. You know what's happening. The story never plays with those expectations. And so when you get there, really somewhat later than you'd have liked, it's just a bit anticlimactic.

And then when much of the theme, the worldbuilding, the little twists of phrasing, when everything in the background is yelling out connections to an existing work that did do all of that, that made me care about characters who were complex, flawed and emotionally accessible, that made me fascinated with a baffling world, that made me invested in politics that felt deeply plausible, that gave me twists that left me genuinely shooketh... the comparison switch in the brain cannot be turned off, no matter how hard I try.

Would I have loved this book if I'd never read Yoon Ha Lee before? No, I don't think so. It needed just that bit more substance for me for that to be on the cards. But I'd have trundled along through it perfectly content, even if when I closed the final page I had no real expectation of remembering it or continuing the series. But it would have been fine. I'd have had fun. I wouldn't have been disappointed. And that's what I am now, knowing what I know, with the context that I have. And that's so much worse.


The Math

Highlights: fun gundam-style setting; interesting ideas about ritual-powered gravity

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

Reference: Yoon Ha Lee, Moonstorm, [Rebellion, 2024]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.