In The White Road of the Moon (2017), a YA high fantasy filled with magic and ghosts, 15 year old orphaned Meridy lives in an isolated mountain village with her aunt and cousins, all of whom despise her (and the feeling is mutual). It’s partly because Meridy’s mother Kamay raised her with a love for books and old languages and stories, partly because Meridy is the daughter of a man her mother never named, who bequeathed Meridy her duskier skin and black eyes, and partly because Kamay had the audacity to die when Meridy was 11, leaving Aunt Tarana with the inconvenient obligation of raising Meridy. To make matters worse, Meridy’s black eyes are a sign of a witch, someone who can see ghosts and bind them to our world ― a magical ability that the practical-minded and suspicious Tarana detests.
So when Meridy’s aunt informs her that she’s to present herself to the village soapmaker under a binding apprenticeship contract the next day, Meridy runs away. After barely escaping trouble with brigands, she finds a wagon company of traveling merchants who are willing to let her travel along with them, and meets her first real friend, the merchants’ daughter Jaift, who has a few secret magical abilities of her own.
Meridy is also helped along on her trouble-fraught journey by a mysterious man who introduces himself only as Carad Mereth (“Storm Crow”) and a few ghosts, including a long-dead prince and a delightfully friendly and protective ghost dog. But as it turns out, they also need help from her, with a grave danger arising from the distant past that threatens their entire kingdom. And Meridy comes to realize that her differences, which have caused her so much pain and trouble in her life, may be a key to saving their land.
The White Road of the Moon is an imaginative, slow-building YA fantasy, appropriate for younger readers as well as older ones. There’s a well-thought out but initially somewhat murky and ponderous magical system, as Rachel Neumeier explains the rules that govern this world: The differences between witches, priests and sorcerers (whose powers may overlap). The ethereal world of dreams, magic and memories, which exists side by side with the real world, but in a separate dimension, accessed by those with magical powers. The nature of ghosts, the spirits of people and animals, who can not only linger in our world, but can temporarily be made semi-tangible ― a very useful trait when you need a sword-bearing ghost to fight enemies for you. And the legendary White Road of the Moon, part of the ethereal world, that leads ghosts away from our world to “the God” … when the ghosts are ready and able to go, which some aren’t, or can’t. It’s quite spiritual, in a general sense.
Neumeier also weaves in the loyal friendship that develops between Jaift and Meridy, choosing to focus on this relationship and other bonds of friendship and respect between the characters rather than romance. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the pervasive romance-oriented young adult fantasies. The plot also incorporates a well-integrated sense of history. Initially it seems rather extraneous to be told how, in ancient times, the witch-king Tai-Enchar betrayed the High King, resulting in the kingdom being shattered into conflicting principalities. But it builds an atmosphere of a land fallen from a time where deeds of prodigious magic were performed. And as Meridy and her friends learn more about the danger threatening both their land and themselves, what seemed to be only ancient history gains current significance, and she and her friends will have to make personal sacrifices to prevail against the forces of evil.
Neumeier’s The White Road of the Moon has a traditional, almost retro vibe, like her book The Keeper of the Mist. Both books reminded me distinctly of Robin McKinley‘s style of writing, in her more accessible stories. The pacing is somewhat deliberate, especially at first, but this coming-of-age tale builds to a satisfying and meaningful conclusion.