Disclosure: this review is part of the IF Comp review exchange. J.J. Gadd was kind enough to review Cat Manning’s Crossroads, and to supply me with copies of her Lunation series for review.
Lunation is a five-book series about a fantasy land in which, five hundred years before the beginning of Book 1, the moon was magically constructed as a prison for the queen Marama. In the present day, her descendants include a yellow-eyed boy with powers of sorcery who dreams (literally) of finding a way to free her. He soon meets up with a young female relative who is able to see the future by gazing into smoke and then, trance-like, weaving or embroidering an image that represents what she saw.
The first three books in the series are technically CYOA-structured, though in the very lightest sense: book 1 contains no branches until chapter 6, when you can pick which of two characters to follow, into 6A or 6B; at the end of 6A, you’re invited to read 6B as well if you’re interested. Book 2 works similarly, with a few sections following each of the two main characters. Book 3 jumps backward to tell the story of Marama herself: the “initiation journey” in which she is cast out of the castle where she grew up in order to familiarize herself with her people. In Book 4 (diagrammed), we reach the point where all the characters so far are reunited — Marama, now released from the moon, joins the fight of her descendants 500 years later. And at this point the structure becomes slightly more complicated than before, though it is still a matter of choosing which character we most wish to follow. Book 5 is roughly similar in complexity to Book 4.
Compared to something like Arcadia, the which-character-to-follow? choice structure in the Lunation series is still tightly constrained. Sometimes we have an option of which chapter to read first out of a set of two or three parallel adventures, but the tracks soon rejoin; there isn’t the dizzying sense of having to piece together the mysteries of the narrative ourselves from numerous complicated components. Instead, in Lunation, this feels like an attempt to mediate for the volume of text: to let the reader choose favorite elements of a story that perhaps runs long, but that is too dear for the author to let any of it go.
Much of the story consists of world building, often told rather than shown. The narrator summarizes a great deal of what happens, so it’s rare to get direct dialogue or interaction scenes, and we get fairly extensive descriptions of building materials or fashions or topographical features in the various cities and towns visited by the story. Frequently there’s a bit of description that would serve as a decent basis for a scene:
Without having to be asked, Vikrant changed the décor of the room to better suit his mistress’s age and mood. Marama was thrilled that he used a beautiful, bee-themed fabric, which delighted her otherwise miserable mood — her injuries meant she could not even sneak visits back to the forest to see her husband and son.
A few sentences could have treated this as direct dialogue and interaction instead: Marama returning to the room one day after being absent; noticing honeycomb-patterned curtains at the window; turning to Vikrant to thank him; receiving a gruff but affectionate reply in which he acknowledges that he wanted to do something to help make up for her separation from her family. Such a scene would not have run very many more words than what we see here, but would have been much more immediate.
Where there is direct conversation, it tends to be fairly expository, with characters often recounting information that the reader has already encountered elsewhere. One doesn’t typically get a sense of the emotional connection between the characters who are talking, and speech is free of subtext, as in a fable or a Bible story. For instance:
“…Perhaps we will find new foodstuffs. But also, you might try bringing the seedlings inside at night so the light of the moon cannot blight them. Perhaps they will grow big enough to withstand its malevolence this way.”
“Ah, it is you who are wise, husband!” Maisie smiled.
There are a lot of things that could have gone into that last sentence that would have made these characters more person-like. Is Maisie naively trusting, certain that her husband’s solution will work as soon as he suggests it? Does she see this new idea as just one of a long history of his schemes (successful or otherwise)? Does she resent the fact that his plans involve her putting in the effort to actually execute them? Is her “oh, you’re wise” remark just a smidgeon sarcastic?
Or here, a little while later, apropos of a plan involving a naval arrangement:
“I don’t like it, Robert,” Maisie said, first up. “The Matilda-Mary‘s been in our family for generations. She’s not to be given away lightly. And while you’re off on this adventure, we’ve got a cellar full of blasting powder underneath our home. It’s not safe.”
“She’s not to be given away lightly” and “It’s not safe” are both on-the-nose clarifications that neither the other character nor the reader should need to understand what’s going on. Tightening up this kind of dialogue would make the characters seem more human and raise our investment in whether they survive the next catastrophe.
The emotional distance is reflected in some of the pacing choices: a five-year stretch of Marama’s life, in which she gets married and has a child, passes in just a couple of paragraphs, less time than the author gives to describing the layout of a random lakeshore town.
Even so, by book 5, there are the seeds of serious personal conflict: Marama’s past journey and imprisonment in the moon mean that she is revered when she returns, but she is conflicted about her role and doesn’t always lead wisely.
At the same time, the books contain some striking imagery. Lunation pretty thoroughly explores the notion that moons are prisons for people, that they didn’t exist for longer than human history, that they could be destroyed and new ones made. Women in the land of Lunation do have periods affected by the (current) moon, but this is a recent development rather than a longterm evolutionary outcome. The books describe a number of distinct cultures with their own resources and city structures.
One of the things that struck me about all this is that Lunation‘s content might be better suited to a game than to the lightly-shuffled-novel form it currently takes. The author has given lots of attention to details that could be rendered visually: the mud houses with small square windows in a particular plains city, the patterned ribbons worn by women of a given culture, the binding of books. There’s a good bit of history that the player could choose to explore through an interactive research process. Meanwhile, a good deal of Marama’s journey — and then the journey of her descendants — is about solving what amount to puzzles, inventively using newly-acquired magical abilities to outwit her enemies.
An associated curiosity is the CYOLunation account, a Twitter feed with links to a short-form choose-your-own experience.