Princess of the Pomegranate Moon is a stirring queer romantic fantasy full of mythological depth, nuanced gender exploration, and ecological themes. I want to say from the outset that it is not a Fantasy Romance™️, though it does have an important romance plotline. It’s a story of self-exploration, and the romance plays a part in that, but without going into spoiler territory, I wouldn’t classify it as a Romance. I went into it thinking that it was, but I did not walk away disappointed. Far from it.
The story begins in a sleepy village, where a mysterious dancer with magical powers entrances everyone and stirs up some trouble with her evocative performance. Elsinore stirs up more than trouble, it turns out; she catches the eye of a young man who’s drawn to her for more than just the beauty of her dance.
Not everyone is equally comfortable with Elsinore’s charms, however; in scenes terrifyingly reminiscent of the contemporary anti-trans witch-hunts, she is pursued by malevolent forces who claim her very existence is dangerous to the fabric of their society. And so begins the real adventure.
Much of the story takes the form of a journey into the heart of a mountain, which is called simply the Mountain in the book, though it’s suggested that it once had a name that was lost long ago after a great catastrophe. The book’s worldbuilding centers around this theme of an ancient civilization destroyed by its greed, cruelty, and indifference to the plight of the Earth, and it takes on mythical tones, with capitalized phenomena like the Season of Shadows, Summer’s End, and the People of the Mounds. This is not granular, Tolkeinesque worldbuilding; the focus is elsewhere.
And when I say elsewhere, I mean the exploration of gender identity, with deep dives into the experience of Elsinore as a trans/nonbinary character. We get a lot of depth about the cultural norms of society, from the deeply intolerant village where the story begins to the delightfully queer city of Sanisa, where acolytes of the goddess Tiranna hold an expansive view of gender. There are in-world terms for trans women (gallae) and trans men (pilli), and a clever concoction for nonbinary as well. There’s an aroace side character with a nice little affirming conversation to show the other characters understand and accept their orientation. I’ve come to appreciate these mini-worlds when they show up in queer fantasy novels; it’s nice to imagine a world that’s better than the shithole we live in.
There are some rather interesting conversations between Elsinore and her lovers (yes, plural—she has a male and later a female lover in the story) about her transness, how she transitioned, what methods she used, etc. I love seeing frank discussions on these topics in books, and they’re handled exceptionally well. We also get more information on her experience as a young person growing up and learning about herself, the people who helped her along the way, etc. during flashbacks, if that’s the right word. The novel has an unusual structure, jumping backwards in time and switching POVs several times, which to be honest I did not love, but in the end, it did not diminish my enjoyment of the larger story.
Which brings me to the Mountain. What happens inside the Mountain stays inside the Mountain, but I will say this: it’s reminiscent of an extended vision quest combined with a solo D&D adventure featuring a very interesting sort of faerie world, some creepy undead monsters, and scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in a distant future post-apocalyptic novel. The author has called it a “dying earth” fantasy novel, which may give you some idea. But what it won’t give you an idea of is the personal journey Elsinore goes on, the search for the boy she was once thought to be. I’m not usually the biggest fan of vision quests, but this one won me over because of the way it shows Elsinore’s exploration of her trans/nonbinary identity and how it’s woven into the larger mythological narrative.
The goddess Tiranna, whom Elsinore serves (and possibly embodies), is a kind of queer Earth Mother, and the acolytes at the magic school where Elsinore studied go through fascinating rituals to become fully vested. Heqakigal, the fae goddess of the underworld, is the dark Mother of Fate, the reverse of the coin, so to speak, and Elsinore must make peace with both in order to fully know herself. The book’s mythology has a neo-Pagan feel, with whiffs of various ancient mythologies and beliefs, and the author weaves magic and gender identity into the belief system in beautiful, moving ways. The Afterword is honestly spellbinding—we learn about the inspiration behind a lot of the worldbuilding, the language, the mythology, and so many other things I was wondering about as I read the book. Wynne is truly a scholar of gender studies and mythology, and it shines through in her writing.
You should read this book if you want a trippy romantic fantasy adventure with a nonbinary trans heroine seeking the key to her identity deep in a mythological mountain.
If you’re looking for gritty worldbuilding or a swoony fantasy romance with a classic HEA, this may not be the book for you. But then again, I really enjoyed it, and those are things I usually love in a book, so maybe this is one that simply defies expectations.
I say give it a try.