Shadows on the Moon, by Zoe Marriott (Candlewick, April 2012, YA)
In an alternate Asian world, perhaps closer to Japan than anywhere else, Suzume lives the ordinary life of a well-born, sheltered girl. She's still too young for marriage, and, as far as she knows, she's lacking any extraordinary talents or beauty. She is wrong.
On her fourteenth birthday, the Prince's men come riding up the road, and slaughter her father, her cousin Aimi, and the household retainers. But Suzume escapes, instinctively disguising herself as a hare, and then concealing herself in the chimney flue under a magical blanket of ash. Youta, now the family's old ashman, but with a sad story of his own, finds her, and explains that she is a shadow weaver, one who can spin illusions.
Her mother, away from home during the massacre, almost immediately marries an old family friend, Terayama--who has been determined to possess her mother for himself for years. At Terayama's estate, Suzume's shadows keep a demure smile on her face, but she turns to self-harm to find release from her grief and her situation of forced passivity...and her growing fear that Teryama does not wish her well. When she learns that Teryama himself was responsible for the killings, her shadows are not enough to save her from his need to kill her, too.
Disguised from Teryama's eyes in the mundane rags and filth of a drudge, the only light in Suzume's life comes from clandestine meetings with a young foreigner--Otieno, one of a group of visitors from a land of dark-skinned people whose culture is very different from her own. But her desire for revenge, and her constant self-harm, stand in the way of her happiness, and when she does something unforgivable, she flees into the night.
Fate crosses her path with the one person who might help her take her revenge on Teryama once and for all. If Suzume, well-born girl turned drudge, can transform herself into a courtesan of unparalleled mystery and charm, she can become the Shadow Princess, and destroy her enemy. And give up on the love between herself and her young foreigner....despite the promise he offers of a life of hope.
It is a dark story, with flashes of light--just as the title, Shadows on the Moon, promises. I became emotionally invested in Suzume very quickly, and so I found it especially hard going to read about her time as a drudge--the hopelessness and pain are pretty intense, and I was anxious for the story to move onward more quickly than it did. But the immediacy of the darkness does lift, although, until the end, it remains unclear if revenge will swallow Suzume's life.
There is magic, but it is not the Point of the story; this isn't a "girl learns to use her magic powers" tale, although the shadow weaving plays an extremely important role in her journey. This kept the magic intriguing, and tantalizing--only gradually do we learn what Suzumi, and other gifted friends she meets, are capable of.
As might be expected from the above, this is very much a character driven book. If the reader doesn't care about Suzume, there isn't much to keep the pages turning--there are no magical battles, or monsters, or supernatural beings of any sort to be confronted. Instead there is intrigue, and plotting, and grief, and internal tension, a mix to which Suzume's romance, doomed or not, brings much needed relief.
If it were not for the rather protracted time in which Suzume is a miserable drudge, I would have loved this--despite that, I liked it quite a bit (although aspects of the story required some firm suspension of disblief). Clearly, I'm shallow--I liked best the part where Suzume is preparing herself to be chosen the Shadow Princesses, and learning dances, and playing music, and falling even more in love with Otieno...
Shadows on the Moon was previously published in the UK, which I'm mentioning as an excuse to show the lovely UK cover, shown at right.
Side note on diversity: as well as being set in an Asian inspired country, with the foreigners seeming to me to come from a West African inspired country, there is also a very important character who, though born male, lives as a woman fully and completely, without this being a source of internal conflict for her.