Review: The Children of the Black Moon by Joseph John Lee

Nathan’s review of The Children of the Black Moon by Joseph John Lee

Have you ever been water boarded by a book before?

I’m talking about those books that don’t have a single OMG WHAT IS HAPPENING moment (a la the Red Wedding), but rather those books that immerse you in a world that seems black and white, but bit by bit gets greyer and murkier and more unclear. Those books where you can see things not falling of a cliff, but slowly eroding over millenia, where any one moment seems fine and stable but over the long term are catastrophic and world-altering. Those books that cause a bad feeling to creep up your neck because everything you thought you knew about its worldview was wrong.

The Children of the Black Moon made me so very uncomfortable.

I absolutely loved every moment of it.

In The Children of the Black Moon Joseph John Lee continues his Spellbinders and Gunslingers series, following The Bleeding Stone. In doing so, he ups the ante in every concievable way, producing a sequel that is deeper, darker, and more thought-provoking, all while complicating his character, plot, and thematic arcs. I know I can be a harsh reviewer when it comes to sequels, but this is a sequel done not only well, but impeccably.

I quite enjoyed The Bleeding Stone, but I was among the chorus of reviewers who talked about how simplisitic it was in its worldbuilding and moral dealings. It was essentially Columbian colonization of the Americas with the serial numbers filed off, including a “big bad” who was the Columbus archetype. The Children of the Black Moon has made me reconceptualize The Bleeding Stone as I now see the grander plan Lee has put into place, challening my perhaps shallow reading of The Bleeding Stone.

In The Children of the Black Moon Lee challenges the colonizer/colonized binary and creates a world that doesn’t neatly align with a good/bad binary. Yes, the colonizers are still the bad guys and continue to be irredeemable in this book (as they should be), but Lee expands the boundaries by demonstrating the colonized people are not a monolith. Not all peoples facing oppression (in its various levels and forms) respond to that oppression in the same way, and they are not all in the same “starting position” when structural minoritization, genocide, etc. begin.

Nothing illustrates this better than Lee’s titular Children of the Black Moon (aka the Eclipseborn). These are a group of in-universe indigenous people shunned from their own group because they were not born underneath the signs of any of the three gods. Their Eclipseborn status provides them some supernatural abilities that other members of their group don’t have, but as humans it doesn’t always matter how much sheer strength you have; it is the social capital and power that is often the most important. Pushed out of their natal groups, these children of the Black Moon are thrust to find their own community and their own way.

Much of The Children of the Black Moon‘s page count is dedicated to one of these outcasted people (a minor character from The Bleeding Stone who has major implications here), as we see her story over the longue duree, as we see her anger grow at the community who has caused her and those that have supported her so much pain and heartache. Sen, the main character from the first book, gets swepped up in this orbit, as she is forced to contemplate her place in the world as an Eclipseborn and question to whom does she genuinely place her loyalty. This all works to blur ethical lines and alliances, as the we see the “colonized” working on both sides of the conflict. Lee beautifully and tragically shines a light on how different people seek different outcomes to sometimes disasterous effect, putting plans into motion that sweep up everyone in its path. This conflict is no longer just about two sides – those who seek to conquer and those who seek to resist their conquerers – but myriad positionalities, alliances, and goals.

In deepening the thematic roots and expanding the scale of this book (both in space and time), Lee never fails to forget that family is the emotional core of this series. Sen’s sister, Tez, continues to be a powerful presence in The Children of the Black Moon as she seeks to unite the various indigenous tribes as a unified force against the colonizing prescence. This is a difficult task because the frictions and tensions between these tribes run deep, and the actions of the Eclipseborn continue to add wrinkles. The sociopolitical tensions The Children of the Black Moon force Tez and Sen on opposite sides of a conflict, and I think it is way that Lee delicately handles this sisterly relationship that may be my favorite part of the book.

Before I wrap up this review, I also want to highlight Lee’s pacing because this book keeps the plot moving while also finding those moments to slow down and sit with the characters’ emotions and conflicts. The book switches between four primary POV characters, with quite lengthy sojourns into flashbacks of the distant past. However, despite the sheer number of storylines that Lee flips between this book never feels slow, and it avoids the dreaded “Middle Book Syndrome” by actually moving things along. The end of the book especially is a high octane battle sequence that is bloody, heart-racing, and emotionally devestating. This final action sequence (no spoilers here!) is also carefully constructed, quickly switching between POVs of characters we have never met before. In another author’s hands this might have been dizzying and confusing, but Lee uses these quick shifts and new (and brief) POVs to convey the chaos of battle and to introduce even more perspectives and experiences of the ongoing conflict.

The Children of the Black Moon is a daring, bold, and complex sequel that puts it not only near (at?) the top of modern indie fantasy, but fantasy publishing in general. Fans of flinlock fantasy and fantasies that tackle colonial themes should put this series at the top of their TBRs ASAP.

Concluding ThoughtsThe Children of the Black Moon is one of the most emotionally confusing and brutal experiences I have ever had reading a book, and I mean that as the highest compliment possible. Lee takes the foundation he had built in The Bleeding Stone and deepened the world, characters, and themes to an almost absurd degree – and we readers get to reap the rewards. This is a devestating sequel that pushes its characters to the brink, and challenges the simplicity of morals/ethics around the colonial project. It is also a fast-paced, action-packed, thrilling book to read, while also giving time to develop the characters and allow them to sit with the emotional consequences of their decisions. This book definitely pushes this series to the “must-read” list.

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