The Moonlight Blade is pitched as a YA fantasy romance, and, while it is certainly that, it’s also a political thriller. The book’s plot is a meticulously crafted web of intrigue and its world’s cosmology is comprehensive and intriguing, adding apocalyptic stakes atop the main character’s personal desire to save herself and her loved ones.
The general plot and vibes are similar to N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010), another fantasy romance featuring a young woman thrust into a battle for power. In The Moonlight Blade, the young woman in question is seventeen-year-old Narra Jal. Narra was born in Bato-Ko, the capital city of Tigang. When she was a baby her mother, Shora, left Bato-Ko with both Narra and Narra’s siter Kuran, telling Narra she must never return. But, when Shora is arrested and held in Bato-Ko’s fortress, Narra decides she must do whatever it takes to rescue her mother, even if it means breaking her promise and returning to the capital.
Narra’s plan is straightforward: she will enter the Sundo, the once-in-a-decade event held by the fortress’s elite at which young people vie to be the new ruler of Tigang. The winner of the Sundo will become the nation’s new Raja/Reyna, a ruler who can channel great magic in order to protect the nation. But since magic literally drains a person’s life force, the country must find a new ruler every ten years (the previous ruler gets to retire, though their life force is seemingly forever diminished). Narra doesn’t care about becoming the next Reyna: she is only there to find a way into the fortress’s dungeons to rescue her mother. However, she soon finds herself caught in the crosshairs of a power struggle even bigger than the Sundo. And in the middle of it all is Teloh, a handsome young fortress Guardian who seems to know more about Narra than Narra herself does.
It's about forty pages into the book before Narra joins the Sundo, but in the lead-up Barbosa does a great job of interweaving the lore of this world with info about Narra’s own personal circumstances. We learn that Narra is considered a cursed girl because of the birthmark on her neck, signifying that she’d committed horrible crimes in her past life. To avoid trouble, Narra tries to keep her birthmark covered up, but even then she’s spent her life being harassed and driven away by people who believe she brings misfortune with her very touch. (Narra herself believes in the curse, too, and is careful not to touch strangers lest they be contaminated.) We also get to spend a little bit of time with Narra’s sister Kuran, and Kuran’s boyfriend Tanu. It’s through these characters’ interactions that we learn more about the world in a nicely organic way: Tanu tells the sisters that he is going to the fortress in order to become a Baylan, basically a government official who can wield magic. Tanu’s choice and his explanation gives us not only insight into the inner workings of the fortress, but also a nice character moment, with Narra comforting her broken-hearted big sis after Tanu dumps her. It’s an elegant plot point that manages to combine worldbuilding with a relatable moment of teenage heartbreak.
All of the worldbuilding in these first six chapters is well-done, but it’s hard not to feel impatient, eager to get to the Sundo. The Sundo is being overseen by the seven Datu, each of them the head of a different sect of the Baylan. From the start it is stressed to the participants how vital it is that the nation find a capable ruler, and that the Datu won’t hold back. Many of the candidates will die. Some may emerge changed. Even the people who survive will have their memory of the Sundo wiped. With the nation’s future at stake, there is no line the Datu won’t cross to make sure that the right person is chosen. This is shown in the first test, which is cruel both psychologically and physically, as the Datu offer more and more valuable bribes to people who are willing to quit now and walk away. When it tips over into bloodshed, the trial sets the stage for what is surely going to be a battle of wits and strength not only between the Datu and the candidates, but also between the candidates themselves.
And yet, unfortunately, the book never really delivers on the promise. As the book goes on, the Sundo becomes less and less important. Of course it was never important to Narra: she’s just taking part as an excuse to get into the fortress. But, as time passes in the book, it seems like even the larger narrative is less interested in who the next Raja or Reyna will be. We get to know some of the other candidates, but, aside from Narra’s two friends Virian and Dayen, no one is fleshed out enough to be seen as serious competition. The Datu administer their tests and Narra searches for her mother, but there’s an odd lack of urgency to both plotlines.
This may be because there is a lot of other plot to cover in The Moonlight Blade, and so the middle of the book is largely concerned with getting its ducks in a row. The number of narrative elements the book juggles is impressive: who is the mysterious Baylan named Teloh and why is Narra so drawn to him? What does Narra’s “curse” actually signify? What crime did her mother commit? There’s also the mystery of Arisa, a girl of Narra’s age. While Narra spent her young life as a traveling cloth merchant shunned by strangers because of her curse, Arisa grew up sheltered and pampered within the fortress. We learn that Arisa is not just any teenage girl, but the reincarnation of Astar, a divine being who became mortal in order to teach humans magic. Being treated like a god on Earth has seemingly gone to Arisa’s head, and, despite “Astar” being a supposedly ceremonial role, Arisa has decided to take a hands-on approach to overseeing the Sundo. Why is she so interested in Narra, and why does she seem to have an almost supernatural control over Teloh?
These are all very compelling plotlines, but there are also a handful of subplots that are touched upon so briefly that they feel more like checking off a box on a to-do list than anything more urgent. For example, during the Sundo it becomes obvious that both the Sundo participants and Baylan are disappearing. The growing number of missing people is clearly something that will come up in the book’s end game, but as none of the missing folk are actual characters, it’s hard to be emotionally invested in it. Because there are so many machinations to touch upon, many characters end up paper thin, showing up in an introductory scene and then once again when they are needed by the plot.
To be clear, this does not apply to everyone, and the characters who do get more page time shine: Virian is a headstrong girl who quickly becomes friends with Narra, but who also tells Narra straight-up that she will do whatever it takes to win the Sundo. Reshar, one of the Datu, seems shifty and corrupt at first glance, but as events unfold he becomes a more complicated figure while still never becoming fully trustworthy. Teloh is another of the main cast who stands out as a fully realized character, which is key since a big part of the book is the attraction felt between Teloh and Narra. At first Teloh seems little more than what you’d expect from a male YA romantic lead, being coolly mysterious and mercurial, protecting the heroine one scene and spurning her the next. But it’s by learning more about Teloh that we learn more about the lore of the world, launching us into a third act that breaks things wide open, expanding the scope and emotion and paying off on everything that’s come before.
By the final act there is more at stake than merely who is going to be Tigang’s next figurehead. Instead, all the plotlines come together to reveal a threat that could destroy Bato-Ko and change the world. To stop it, Narra must remember what exactly ties her to Teloh and why he keeps showing up when she has visions of her past lives. But Teloh warns her that, if Narra knew who she really was, it would mean she wouldn’t be “Narra” anymore. It’s a credit to the writing that, even after Narra unearths knowledge of her past lives, she is both a changed person and yet still undeniably herself: during the climax, she faces off against Arisa not using magic, but instead in a bare-knuckle fight, drawing on her experience of being a picked-upon urchin.
There comes a moment at the end of the novel where Narra fails to fully vanquish the villains, and this is a little frustrating: if she had, the book would have been completely standalone. But I’m not too mad that the door’s been left open for a sequel. In The Moonlight Blade, Barbosa employs Filipino mythology to create a fascinating secondary fantasy world. By the end of the book, the main characters have lost much and changed greatly. While some narrative threads are left loose, Narra and Teloh at least arrive in a place that left me feeling satisfied. There will always be villains in the world scheming and plotting, but if you can understand yourself and the one you love, what really is there to fear?