I read Anne Leonard's Moth and Spark and kept thinking about food.
Imagine sitting down to eat a meal: On your plate you can see a beautiful, mouth-watering, colourful seafood risotto with all sorts of ingredients you love, which looks and smells wonderfully. Imagine eagerly getting a forkful into your mouth only to realise that the food is…flavorless.
This is Moth and Spark to me: All the ingredients are right, but it’s missing the salt and pepper (of course a much better analogy would be something with light and sparks and attracting moths but indulge me while I run with the food stuff).
Moth and Spark features dragons, romance, politics, war and a pretty cool female character. In other words, everything that on paper, and in spite of its familiar tropes, is plenty to whet anyone’s appetite:
Tam is the sensible daughter of a provincial doctor who is attending court for the first time. Her hopes for adventures are curtailed when she witnesses the death of a courtier. With her medical knowledge and the visions she is plagued with since arriving in the capital, Tam can’t help but to feel that something out of the ordinary is about to happen. And she’s right.
War is coming. There are rumors of madness and shadows spreading all over the world. The small kingdom of Caithen is only but one of many kingdoms under the Empire. Prince Corin of Caithen has been chosen by the enslaved dragons to free them from the evil Emperor’s control. To do that, Corin will have to face unthinkable danger and almost certain death.
But not before he opens this season’s ball. WHO WILL PRINCE CORIN DANCE WITH?
And this right here might be Moth and Spark’s most obvious flaw. Because on the one hand, the narrative is very insistent on making sure we understand that stakes are extremely high. We are told over and over again: That war is brewing. That people will die. That history and the past are important in explaining all of that. That rules are to be abided. And that a prince can never, ever marry a commoner: It does not happen—it cannot happen.
On the other hand, none of the aforementioned things are truly fleshed out, so any sense of danger and urgency we’re supposed to expect are nonexistent. Events happen for reasons that aren’t well explained. The Dragons give Corin the power of fire (the power they are supposed to have lost, which makes this giving very confusing) so that Corin can give the power back to them. The reasoning behind that is not very convincing: Why Corin (just because he is good at politics)? Why can’t the dragons free themselves (if they are described as so powerful)? Why were they enslaved in the first place? Most contrived of all: They give him the power and the task but don’t tell him why or how or when. In the end, the story loses steam and fizzles out as the war happens and is won in a matter of days (and a small number of pages). The speed with which this life-and-death plotline is resolved is mirrored in the other main storyline in the novel, the romance between Corin and Tam.
From the moment they meet, they feel attracted to each other. There is actually a pretty great scene between them early on, where they banter and exchange stories and that attraction between them is wholly believable. What keeps them apart is also completely plausible as the story and the characters repeat ad nauseam: He is the crown prince, she is a commoner, their marriage is impossible. But they fall in love nonetheless and there is understandable angst.
But here is the thing: All of this? It happens within five days. Five days from meeting, to courtship, to falling in love and then surpassing all obstacles and getting married anyway because True Love. FIVE DAYS. Insta-love is bad storytelling because it is often a shortcut, much more about telling than showing. But insta-love followed by breaking all of the internal rules of the story without any real repercussion for the matters of politics and class that were in principle so important? That’s not even shortcut—that’s hand-waving that completely defangs your own narrative.
But on the bright side? I loved Tam. I loved how smart and sensible she was, how she talked to Corin and advised him. I love that she fell in lust with him and just ran with it. But I hated how the narrative framed this as a true sign of specialness. How, in comparison to all the other women attending court, she is better, more virtuous and oh so, different. To makes matters worse, the text only remembers she is supposed to be a doctor’s apprentice when it’s convenient to the plot. That actually left a bad taste in my mouth.
If you are looking for tasty, recent dragon stories, I’d recommend Seraphina by Rachel Hartman and The Copper Promise by Jen Williams (for a not so recent one, you can’t go wrong with Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton).
In Book Smugglerish: a bland 5 out of 10.