Kai is a Moonburner—a female sorceress reviled by her people and normally killed at birth. Except Kai's parents saved her by disguising her as a boy—a ruse they've kept up for almost seventeen years. But when her village is attacked, Kai’s secret is revealed and she’s sentenced to death.
Thankfully, the gods aren’t done with Kai. Despite the odds stacked against her, she escapes her fate, undertaking a harrowing journey to a land where Moonburners are revered and trained as warriors.
But her new home has dangers of its own—the ancient war against the male Sunburners has led the Moonburners down a dark path that could destroy all magic. And Kai, armed only with a secret from her past and a handsome but dangerous ally, may be the only one who can prevent the destruction of her people...
Wow. Just wow. There's a lot to enjoy in Claire Luana's debut YA fantasy novel; the gender politics, the girl-power, the world building, the fantastic cast of characters. I was expecting to like the story, but I wasn't expecting to totally love it! I was lucky enough to see this story in its late-draft form, but the work that's gone into polishing it is clear to see. Moonburner is clearly a labour of love for the author, and it shows on every page.
And what pages they are! From the prologue that grabs hold of you and won't let go, right the way through to the final battle, Moonburner is a page turner from start to finish. The story is set in the lands of Kita and Miina, countries divided by magic and gender. In Miina, females with magic - drawn from the power of the moon - are revered as so-called Moonburners. In Kita, where Kai was unfortunately born, they are put to death by the male-dominated powers that be - males with magic drawn from the sun, aka Sunburners. After escaping her death sentence march into the desert that divides the two lands, Kai is taken in by the Moonburners and trained to embrace her powers. The world building is simple and easy to get into, which allows for a breathlessly taught opening act. From Kai's outing to her arrival in the Moonburner citadel, a school where young women are trained as warriors to harness their magic, there's barely a stray word that could have been cut in the edit to be found.
However the author takes a fairly simple story of two opposites, and turns the idea on its head. There are no good guys and bad guys here (well, there are, but I'll get to that later). What starts as a black and white world for Kai quickly begins to morph into a world of grey, where nothing's quite as clear-cut as either side of the impending war seem to think. There are a lot of Asian-inspired elements to the story, so the concept of yin and yang seems fitting. On the surface, the moon and sun burners are polar opposites. Female and male. Night and day. Darkness and light. What is initially present to Kai in the citadel's teachings is very much them and us, but the set up evolves into something more complicated as she gradually comes to realise that neither can exist without the other, and true victory lies in peace rather than destruction. Yes, this book features plenty of strong female characters, but it's not always the case that these are the good guys. It also features plenty of strong male characters, and it's not always the case that they are the bad guys. Claire Luana manages to walk the fine line between feminism and equality, without overbalancing into superiority on either side.
If the world building was outstanding, then the characters and dialogue in this story set it on fire! Kai is a utterly adorable protagonist, equal parts strong and vulnerable. Behind her Buffy-esque sass is a young girl raised to fear the world around her, and when the security blanket of her loving family is ripped away in brutal fashion, she's thrown out into that world to fend for herself. Well, not quite for herself. Powerful burners acquire a senshen, a sort of spirit animal, and Kai's is a take-no-shit fox named Quitsu. And he is awesome! Snarky and wise in equal measure, this guy is easily my favourite character. I would have liked to see him written a little more distinctly - it was sometimes hard to work out whether it was Kai or Quitsu that was talking because their dialogue and attitudes were so similar - but that's a minor quibble. Kai's new Moonburner friends were pretty good, if a little interchangeable with their silver hair and sass. Maaya was the best of the group, her soft-heartedness making her stand out a little more than the rest. I did love the ass-kicking trainer Nanase (aka Eclipse, because she killed so many Sunburners in the first war that the sun apparently went dark - seriously, what's not to love here!?), but the abundance of friends, antagonists and teachers at the citadel felt a bit cluttered.
And what can I say about Kai's 'love interest', Hiro? I say love interest in inverted commas because, to be honest, he barely features for most of the book. Seriously, he and Kai meet about three or four times. Their burgeoning relationship is pushed aside by the impending war - and the fact that their both standing on opposite sides of it - as it rightly should be. I have to applaud the author for being brave and going with this angle. The Romeo and Juliet thing is a pretty well trodden path in YA fantasy, and it would have been easy to play this up. But Claire Luana puts her protagonist front and centre, her journey and growth taking precedent over ticking a box or shoehorning in any swoony scenes. It's weird, because in a roundabout way, this totally works. Because both characters keep their head in the game, you buy into their romance even more. It's clearly not some fleeting obsession. Kai's obviously not falling to pieces over Hiro's abs or his sparkly eyes, so their connection feels more real, and I will take this a hundred times over magical bonds, instalove and/or a love triangle.
With such a fast-paced story, it was inevitable that the writing would feel a little flat at times. There's very little navel-gazing here, and no affected, artsy prose. And for the most part it's great because it makes for a more exciting story. But there were times when I'd have liked just a little bit more on how Kai and the other characters were feeling. There's a lot of she said this and he did that, but at lot of the time there's very little sense of how they're saying it and what they're thinking.
Much like Kai's gradual uncovering of the citadel's dark secrets, there's more to the story than meets the eye. I loved the suprisingly dark subplot with the Moonburner queen and her plot to destroy the Sunburners once and for all. There were a few almost too dark moments though, with a couple of allusions to and mentions of rape that felt out of place. There as nothing wrong with them per se, they just don't seem to fit in this book. The story itself though is solid, if a little cliche at times, but because it's all told through such colourful characters and in such a rich, vibrant world, it feels like something fresh. The gender politics bring a different angle to the usual 'good guys v bad guys' set up, and the message of coexistence and tolerance has rarely felt more timely.
The story wrapped up nicely, while still leaving room for a sequel (more on that below). One of my pet peeves is an ending that reads like the author stopped typing part way through a chapter, but this book has a solid beginning, middle, and end, as well as a hook for book two. Ending perfection! Moonburner is a fantastic debut from a very talented author, and a must-read for YA fantasy fans.
Author Q&A with Claire Luana
1. What inspired you to write Moonburner?
My inspiration for Moonburner was loosely based on China’s One Child Policy, which led to generations of Chinese families choosing to have boys over girls. It made me think: what would happen in a world where families didn't want girls because those girls had some magical ability that was forbidden?
This led to the premise of Moonburner, where Kai, the main character, is born into a land where magic is forbidden to women, and she is forced to masquerade as a boy to hide her powers.
2. If you could go back in time and give your past self one bit of advice when you sat down and started writing Moonburner, what would it be?
Probably to share Moonburner with other readers and writers sooner! I was so nervous to share my work that I spent a lot of time trying to perfect it before I let it see the light of day. When I inevitably changed things as a result of the feedback, all that polishing went down the drain. Plus, I’ve found I really enjoy sharing my work and getting collaborative feedback and ideas on how to make it better. No need to miss out on that!
3. Do you have any writing rituals?
My rituals have changed over time, but currently, I write every morning. My day job is pretty mentally taxing (I’m a lawyer) so I found I didn’t have much brainpower left at the end of the day. Now I get up at 5am to write, which is painful, but it means it’s done first thing. It feels really good!
4. Which three books would you take to a desert island?
I’d want something with a lot of pages to fend off boredom, so probably the Bible, the Eye of the World (first book in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time Series), and Six of Crows, which is my current fave read.
5. There are a lot of Japanese words and names in Moonburner, did you have any location and cultural inspiration from the far east?
Yes! As I mentioned, the book started with me thinking about China’s One Child policy, and so I always imagined the book as having an Asian influence. We housed Japanese students in my house for years growing up, so I was more familiar with that culture. It’s because of those experiences that I decided to borrow from Japanese medieval culture for Moonburner.
6. Gender division, feminism and equality play big parts in Moonburner, what made you decide to include these rather than more traditional elements of YA fantasy?
Gender equality is a topic near and dear to my heart as a woman who works in a traditionally male dominated field. My colleagues and I spend a lot of time sharing experiences and talking about how we can better advance women in law and society generally, so it felt natural for me to focus on gender as a theme in my first book, especially once the world and the story premise began to take shape.
7. It’s wonderful to see a YA female protagonist who’s on her own journey while the love interest takes a back seat. Was this intentional when you originally sat down to write Moonburner?
It wasn’t intentional, but grew naturally out of the way the plot worked out. Kai met her love interest very early on, but then didn’t run into him again until the last quarter of the book. I definitely sweated a bit trying to figure out a way to build a connection between them without falling prey to the Insta-love trope that so many YA books are guilty of! But in the end, I think romance as a sub-plot more naturally fit the book. Moonburner is really about Kai growing as a person and as a woman. The romance is like a little bonus.
8. Who would be in your fantasy cast for the movie version of Moonburner?
I imagine Grace Park to play Kai, and maybe a younger version of Ian Anthony Dale for Hiro.
9. Who was your favourite character from a writer’s perspective and who was your favourite character from a reader’s perspective, or were they one and the same?
I loved writing Quitsu. He was so fun and scrappy and unique. Those early chapters with him and Kai were some of the first I ever wrote, and still feel really special to me. Readers tell me their favorite character is Emi. I think they appreciate her bad-assery and snark!
10. Kai’s seishen in a fox. What do you think your spirit animal would be?
I think maybe an owl. Owls are wise and mysterious, but can be tough when they need to be!
11. Obviously Sunburner is out soon, but are there any plans for more books in this universe?
Yes! I originally intended to write two, but as I was brainstorming ideas for a new series, I realized that one of those ideas would fit perfectly as a third book in the Moonburner world. Instantly, I knew I had to write it! So, there will be a third book titled Starburner. The protagonist will be Kai and Hiro’s teenage daughter. I have it all plotted out and I’m aiming for a spring launch!
12. Sum up Moonburner in five words.
Strong women make moon magic!
If, like me, you hate getting into a series only to find there's a year plus wait for the next book in the series, you're in luck! Not only is the Moonburner prequel, Burning Fate, already available (and for free if you subscribe to Claire's mailing list) but the sequel proper, Sunburner, is out on Tuesday 26 September.
I've been lucky enough to get my hands on an arc of Sunburner and believe me when I say it's awesome! It's everything that was brilliant about Moonburner turned up to eleven; with the stakes higher, the romance swoonier and the bad guys badder. It's absolutely unmissable, so, if you read and love Moonburner, make sure you add this one to your TBR too. You can check out the blurb on Goodreads now, but be warned, it does contain a spoiler if you're yet to read Moonburner.
If you need any more tempting, there's also a load of swag on offer if you preorder Sunburner, including a bookmark, map (my personal favourite of all swag!) and deleted scenes, as well as chance to win more bookish goodies. Happy reading!