The Moon King by Neil Williamson
I ended up with mixed feelings about Neil Williamson‘s debut novel, The Moon King, loving the setting and the premise, quite enjoying the beginning, and mostly responding to the often lyrical prose, but finding as my reading went on that my appreciation was beginning to dwindle. In the end, I’d say it’s an impressive first novel in many ways, very impressive actually, but one that shows some first novel cracks that widen as the novel progresses.
The setting is the island city of Glassholm, founded 500 years ago by “The Lunane,” he who saved their civilization half a millennium ago by capturing the moon and tethering its orbit to the city. Since then, the population’s moods and behaviors wax and wane with the moon: the people are depressed and listless during The Dark, and hedonistically carefree during The Full. But it isn’t just the people who respond to the moon’s phases — food spoils during the Dark, artistic creations last a mere month, and so forth. While this cyclical nature has been going on for centuries, at the time of the novel, there is a lot of discussion of how things seem to be falling apart, Dark seems worse than ever, chaos and crime seem more rampant, and some even wonder if the Lunane is losing control, this man who has led their city all this time, somehow managing to keep himself alive the past 500 years.
Williamson offers up three main guides through these dark times for Glassholm, all of them outsiders in this normally well-oiled and stable world. Anton is an engineer who has turned his back on the Foundry — the engineer organization — in order to study his own interests in his own fashion, believing the Foundry to be far too conservative and hide-bound. Mortlock is a former cop and current palace guard, one with major memory issues due to earlier events. And Lottie is a young artist who is always a bit out of step with the city residents. All three end up playing major roles in the upheaval that soon strikes the city. Also in the mix are: a literal outsider in Henrik, who came to Glassholm as a sailor and has lost his memory of the past six or seven months since his ship entered port; strange watery creatures who suddenly appear to people in dreams and in person; the mysterious indigenous people of the island whom everyone had thought extinct; and of course the Lunane himself, though in unexpected fashion.
I loved the premise of this novel — the capturing of the moon and how the people, and life in general, waxed and waned in kind with the moon. The descriptions of how these moods affect everyone, how they plan for each phase, how they deal with each phase, were fascinating. I also liked the sense of stagnation that lies behind the city — the residents no longer understand how the Founders’ technology works and much of it lies in ruin and disuse, a problem that strikes at the center of the novel’s problem in that one such failing machine is the one that keeps the moon and city yoked together. That background, a once much more highly technological city saved by some fantastical means — is it technology that ties the moon to Glassholm and its people? Magic? —, was intriguing and I kept wanting to learn more about that transition.
I also enjoyed how the novel opened up in a pre-crisis mode, introducing the reader to a sense of unsettled anxiety that created suspense right off the bat. As did one of those symptoms of the crisis — a murder, which is a rare event in the city, even during Dark. In fact, much of the start of The Moon King has a police procedural feel to it as Mortlock tries to track down the killer.
The characters were mostly richly developed, some, like Lottie, relatively quickly, others, like Mortlock, reveal layers upon layers. Anton is probably the most simple and predictable in his role, but you have to like his sense of independence and his willingness to look closely at himself, even if it means staring at some ugly truths. Mortlock was mostly fascinating in the way his character, and how the reader responds to it, changes over the course of the novel. Lottie I found the least interesting, though mostly as the book went on; at the start I quite enjoyed her sections. As for the Lunane, like the moon, he waxes and wanes in the readers minds, though I think I will leave it at that so as not to offer up any spoilers.
That “at the start” though is the underlying issue I had with the novel. Williamson had me at the start with the great premise, three intriguing characters, a suspenseful murder mystery, a larger mystery about the origins of this society, and an often poetic turn of phrase (if not all the similes and metaphors worked, most did). But in an oddly appropriate fashion with regard to this particular novel, my appreciation and interest waned.
First, I found the novel overly long. Way overly long to be honest. I was shocked at the midway point to realize I was only halfway through and that sense of “when is this going to end” lingered throughout the rest of the book. Reading it on my Kindle, I wasn’t sure of page counts, but I’d say the novel could have lost ten percent without any problem and that perhaps losing 20 percent would have made for a leaner, tighter, more effective story.
The character that had early on won me over began to pale as well. Anton, as mentioned, mostly moved on in predictable fashion, but also seemed to lose much of his personality. Lottie’s storyline dragged on to an end point that felt anti-climactic. And Mortlock’s took a turn that was in some way interesting but in other ways robbed him of a sense of agency that made it difficult for me to respond all that strongly to him anymore. My favorite characters were actually side characters, such as a cafe owner, but their appearances and import dwindled greatly as the novel continued. In the end, I just didn’t have an emotional connection to any of the three main characters.
The story of the city’s origin had some good twists and turns, and some important ones in terms of theme, but left a bit too much unexplained for me and also left me with a weird mix of science-fantasy that just didn’t feel wholly there, didn’t feel quite nailed down.
Thematically, I liked what Williamson does with the story — exploring issues such as the balance between technology and nature, the nature of cycles, the conflict between an ordered, static, and stagnant society versus a chaotic, unruly, growing society that allows for the concept of change, even if sometimes he hits the bullseye a bit too clearly.
The Moon King petered out a bit for me; I’d been ready for it to end well before it actually did. But there is a rich imagining behind it, supported by an effective style and voice and (at least at the start) vivid characterization. Though my appreciation did, like the moon at its center, wane, The Moon King remains an impressive debut, and I’d certainly pick up another novel by Williamson to see where his obvious skill takes him.
It could fall into the category of New Weird, right? Because of the magical city? I love books with strange and magical cities and I think they are darned hard to pull off.
Sad about the characters losing steam, though.
You still made me want to read it. Thanks, Bill.
Definitely would fall into that genre, though paler, not as deeply presented as others
Sounds great; I want to check this out (if I ever have time again).