Danica's Reviews > Waking the Moon

Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand
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Apr 26, 11

Read in April, 2011

I can tell, even before I've finished typing one sentence into this dialogue box, that this is going to be a very long review. Why? Because I really liked the first two-thirds of this book. Loved it even, for the sensual, pungent writing, the overwrought but undeniably effective atmospherics, the genderbending, the rampant bisexuality of the ensemble cast, the references to UC Berkeley, the evocation of a very specific kind of college-aged lethary & alienation, the violence of feeling that is all but gouged into these pages, the deft incorporation of fantasy elements ... Speaking of fantasy elements. HOW TITILATING DO I FIND THEE. The malignant, black-winged angels. The creepy hallucinations. The brutal bloodbath rituals and the threat of sex edging every exchange and the secret doorways leading to worlds unknown. The gothic mystery of it all! The first third of this book, especially, reads like a perfumed, sweat-saturated medley of plot points taken from Jennifer's Body and Donna Tartt's The Secret History. (I say this understanding that this book predates both of those titles.) The writing was only slightly overripe. There were some deeply felt feminist tirades in this story that made me sit straight up, gripping the book hard, excited to see where they would lead. Man, I was loving it.

So it comes as an enormous disappointment that after 500 pages of scene setting and tension building and feminist chestbeating, Hand leaves us with the ending that she does. Did no one else on Goodreads have MASSIVE FUCKING PROBLEMS with the way Hand (pun alert) handled the resolution to her story? Specifically, Hand seems to allow for the possibility of a multifaceted Goddess in the first half of the book, cf. when Sweeney leaps into Balthazar's portal, which leads into the Goddess's world, refusing to believe that worshipping Othiuym can only result in a future besieged by darkness and evil. BUT THEN, somewhere along the way, it's like Hand threw up her hands at the idea of ever producing a morally ambiguous scenario that somehow mediates a third space between EVIL PATRIARCHY on the one hand AND EVIL MATRIARCHY on the other, so the last third of the book degenerates abruptly into anti-women fear-mongering. Replete, of course, with descriptions of taut long fawn legs and itty bitty waists and boobies overflowerth. What had earlier seemed so empowering and erotic, a celebration of the female body, now seemed (esp. with a particular character's descent into cackling villainy) exploitive and gratuitous.

[*****SPOILERS FOLLOW*****]I mean, it's one thing to write a fantasy novel about a militant feminist cult and have it all end in a totally sensationalized orgy of blood and sex and death where the female uprising has its punishment meted out to it if you're a man; it's another thing to do it if you're a woman. Not to say that either of these hypothetical authors should be excused; but it seems particularly egregious that the writer, here, of this book, is female. It feels like Hand's exploiting some very serious modern day issues for the purpose of telling a sexy, violent story, and then leaving these issues to the wayside without engaging with them in any meaningful way. They form the pivot of her story but are discarded, thoughtlessly, after having served their use (i.e. getting us to the nakedness, the blood-spattered sacrifices, and the requisite happy ending). The fact that women do get beaten, raped, passed over for promotions, consigned to a lifetime of housewife drudgery, subjected to jokes and comments and forms of media meant to police the way they see and use their bodies and brains, is of no significance to Sweeney, or to this narrator.

Another thing that gets me about this book is its perpetuation of the view that women are all tumultuous emotion and primitive mystics and that it's the men, always the men, who are the lightbringers of order and civilization. When in reality, this couldn't be further from the truth. (Ever wonder why when Mohammad Yunus set up Grameen Bank, he made it a strict policy to lend ONLY TO WOMEN? Oh, shit, right, because the women were the ones who paid the bills and fed the children and stocked the pantry and did the bookkeeping and generally kept things in order, while the men did shit like blow all the money on booze. I'm not kidding, I'm pretty sure this has been proven in studies.) Kinda analogous to another totalizing narrative that gets disseminated a lot in today's media, i.e. that of the civilized white man subduing and then reforming the barbaric, brown-skinned savage. HBO's adaption of GoT, I'm looking atchu.

So you know. While I was reading this book, I waved off my usual preoccupations with keenly observed character interiorities, with a certain restraint of language, with blah blah genre conventions. It didn't matter that I had no idea why Sweeney was so special that all the beautiful people fall in love with her! (Seriously, I kept waiting for the revelation that faerie blood ran through her family's veins or something.) It didn't even bother me that much that Hand's scenesetting signature shorthand is to type the words "coriander", "cardomom", "sandalwood", "preserved orange peels", "cinnamon", and "anise" in various endless combinations. It was all just so gothic and sinister and immense and exciting! But oh, the way she wrapped up this book's themes. Or, more specifically, the way she didn't. This was such a good book until the author decided to resort to comfortable black-white binaries in service to her fairytale ending and flip the bird to feminism on the way there. Seriously, ugh.
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