Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Genre: Historical Fiction (Alt/Spec Fic), Mystery, Supernatural, Action, Urban Fantasy
Rating: ★★★☆☆ | 2.5 out of 5.0
Zephyr Hollis has a reputation as a do-gooder. As a singing vampire suffragette, actually. From Brooklyn to Midtown to Battery Park to the LES, she and her bicycle are near-ubiquitous as she runs from protest to meeting to night school, where she teaches. One night, before class, she comes across a young boy, victim of an Other attack, and tries to save him. She’s helped by Amir, a mysterious Other who attends her classes, who in turn offers her a deal: if she will help him track down Rinaldo, the vampire mob boss whom she suspects is behind the attack of the child, he will pay her a much needed $200. The more Zephyr investigates, though, the more she finds herself compromised by her growing attraction to Amir, and by the feeling that something is very, very wrong.
I want to start by saying that I really, really enjoyed the concept of this novel. I love supernatural fiction & urban fantasy, and I love historical fiction, especially alternate histories, and I love sweet, slightly dangerous romances. But I don’t know; there was just something about Moonshine that I didn’t…exactly…love. Some part of that is Zephyr herself. Not that I don’t like do-gooding heroines with diatribes for everyone who crosses her path––it’d be more than a little hypocritical if I didn’t––but she was lacking something. She felt, quite frankly, like a bit of a white feminist.
Like she wants to be the saviour of everyone around her, and is frankly shocked when that doesn’t work out in her favour. I don’t want to say that I found her sanctimonious (this from the girl who runs a blog dedicated to yelling about social issues in popular media), but the truth is that I did. I guess I just didn’t buy her characterisation. If her guilt was something that had been brought to the forefront, her dedication to the social causes she throws herself into might have more weight, but as it is, it just feels like she’s perpetually disappointed with the world for not being as Good as she is––and she’s not particularly Good.
There were things that were well-done, though. With a lot of mystery novels that cross into other genres, I tend to feel really let down by the resolution of the plot, but here, it felt like the mystery was really at the heart of the plot. It had stakes, it had consequences, and most importantly, it was resolved in a way that was surprising, but didn’t disrespect the reader by pulling a rabbit out of a false-bottom hat and telling us it was a pigeon all along. It resolved the issues that were necessary to resolve for this novel, but it also left a few things to be wrapped up in the sequel.
The novel also raised a lot of very interesting dynamics: Others are very distinctly not human, yet they are people. They are dangerous, and this is a fact, but they are also in danger from frightened humans. They are the butchers and the butchered, the terror and the terrorised, and the novel doesn’t present this like it’s an easy equation to solve. The vampires (who are coded as white, and who largely live around Little Italy––though this raises the question of whether or not there are vampires of colour, particularly in such proximity to Chinatown) are treated one way because they are Others and because many of them also happen to be immigrants. Yet Amir is treated quite another way because he is Other but also because he is very obviously brown.
Speaking of Amir, his dynamic with Zephyr is also really complicated, made even more so by the end of the novel. Perhaps because this is not a YA novel (She’s older than 21, and he’s in his hundreds), but the impossibilities of their relationship extend beyond “but he’s hot and dangerous what do I dooo!” The fact that he is so much older than she is, that his lifespan is much longer than she can conceive, and as such, the extent to which this changes the way he relates to the world, is something that has implications beyond their romance, and it’s something that really affects the tone of their relationship.
Amir is also not some cold, distant virgin who has only loved our precocious heroine ever in the entirety of his long, long, life. (No shade, just saying.) He’s had relationships, relationships that have meant something. Zephyr is one in a line of people who have loved him, and there likely will be people he loves after Zephyr dies, but that’s the reality of their situation, and the reality of loving someone who doesn’t simply stay stagnant for centuries.
Even so, there were things that I found troubling about the way Amir is presented in text. He and West Asia are often exotified, in a way that is meant to be indicative of contemporaneous racism and in a way that is indicative of the author’s modern day attitudes. When he is introduced, it’s as a darker version of Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik. I gather it’s meant to be complementary, as Rudolph Valentino (and certainly no one will dispute this) was exceptionally handsome, but it’s frankly quite odd that a West Asian is being held in comparison to a film that propogates an Orientalist vision of West Asia. Odd, and discomforting. His characterisation also indulges in Orientalist stereotype.
I’ve mentioned before that I strongly dislike it when Asian and North African material culture is described as ‘lush’ or mysterious or strange or exotic, and these are things that are all present when it comes to descriptions of Amir and his home and his language. He’s frequently described as an Arabian prince, and while the lack of specific culture and ethnicity is understandable within the context of his identity, it’s troubling considering how MENA nations are grouped as a monolith at the expense of real people’s identities. There are also a few uses of antiblack slurs that I found kind of unnecessary and almost felt like it was for shock value? But that’s not something that I’m in a position to judge more than the author, who is herself Black.
Overall, this was definitely a novel that has its problems. It tries, I think, to do good, to represent the realities of living in 1920s New York (even if this New York has vampires and other supernatural creatures) while giving readers an interesting story, but I found some of its messaging to be ill-considered or perhaps underdeveloped. That said, though, I did enjoy the plot. I really adored Amir and the way his relationship with Zephyr developed and how it was affected by the complications that many other supernatural romances tend to skate over. I would recommend picking it up, as I had great fun reading it, but an honest rating of its quality compared to the other books I’ve read would render my final judgement a “just okay.”