Kelly Barnhill's The Girl Who Drank the Moon, winner of the 2016 Newbery Medal, has all the rich details and magical curiosities that you find in enduring, classic fairy tales, making it hard to put down. As with all good fairy tales, world building is important. The world of The Girl Who Drank the Moon is bleak and gray, with pockets of coziness and kindness. There is the Protectorate, also known as the City of Sorrows, a grim, fog covered town ruled by Elders who live in wealth and riches while their townsfolk eke out humble livings. To keep the people of the Protectorate compliant, the Elders ensure they have "a frightened people, a subdued people," by perpetuating a lie. The people of the Protectorate believe that a baby must be left in a clearing in the forest every year on the Day of Sacrifice to satisfy the terrible Witch who lives there. There does happen to be a witch living in the forest, but she is far from terrible. Along with an eternally juvenile pocket-sized dragon named Fyrian who thinks he is fierce and enormous and a poetry writing, slightly morose swamp monster named Glerk who is as old as the world, the witch named Xan lives in the center of the forest at the edge of a swamp that sits atop an underground volcano. Every year, Xan makes the trek to the circle of sycamore trees and rescues the infant, taking her or him to outlying, free cities where families are waiting for them, feeding them starlight along the way.
When we first meet Xan, Glerk and Fyrian, it is the Day of Sacrifice and, instead of docilely complying with the annual ritual, the mother of the infant girl to be sacrificed resisting. And the baby that is sacrificed, with her big, round eyes and black curling hair, is precious to Xan. The Witch dallies on her way to the Free Cities and, enchanted by the baby's gaze, accidentally feeds her moonlight instead of starlight and the baby becomes "enmagicked." Knowing that this gift of magic will need special attention, Xan names the baby Luna and becomes her grandmama. Back in the Protectorate, Luna's mother is locked in the Tower in the center of town, where she is now known as the Madwoman. There, she is guarded by the Sisters of the Star, a military force of highly trained, academic assassins headed up by Sister Ignatia. On the day Luna is left in the woods, Antain, an Elder-in-Training, is changed forever by his participation. His path will one day cross Luna's - and the Madwoman's - again in an exciting climax.
The 300 or so pages between their first and final meeting are filled with stories and sorrows. In fact, occasional chapters throughout The Girl Who Drank the Moon are told in first person narrative, a mother telling her child the story of the Witch in the woods, occasionally snapping at questions from the child. Barnhill also does a marvelous job writing from the points of view of several characters in the book. And there is more to the actions of the Elders than keeping their people subdued. Barnhill takes sorrow, and the memories and feelings that accompany it, and turns it into a force of magic, with characters wielding it ruthlessly and growing stronger with power. The other kind of magic, that possessed by Xan, Luna and the Madwoman, works in more mysterious, often uncontrollable ways. Because Luna's magic is so powerful, Xan finds a way to bind it until her thirteenth birthday (the exact day, she does not know) thinking that she will teach her how to use it then. For me, one of the sorrows of The Girl Who Drank the Moon (without giving too much away) was not getting to see Xan teach Luna how to use this force that had been coursing through her for so many years. I also finished The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which at 400 pages is long, although about average for fantasy, feeling like there was more the author could have put into the story, detail rich and beautifully written as it was. There was more that I wanted to know about this world of the Protectorate and the Free Cities, more about the event some 500 years in the past that set this story in motion. Having read/listened to The Girl Who Drank the Moon after it won the Newbery shaped how I read and thought about it, no doubt. After scrolling through my reviews from the last year and reading the Mock Newbery list of possible contenders, I'm not sure I would have picked Barnhill's book for the Gold Medal. But, when I think back over the fantasy novels I read last year - and the years before that - one thing I can say about The Girl Who Drank the Moon is that it is a story that is unforgettable.
Source: Purchased book & Audio Book
More Books by Kelly Barnhill