An Arrow to the Moon, Emily X.R. Pan (Little, Brown 978-0-31646-405-5, $18.99, 400pp, hc) April 2022.
Emily X.R. Pan’s debut, The Astonishing Color of After, was a heart-wrenching young-adult novel about a teenager realizing her parents are as flawed and emotional as she is. Her sophomore novel, An Arrow to the Moon, treads similar territory but with the added inspirations of Romeo & Juliet and the Chinese legend of Chang E and Hou Yi.
Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Fairbridge, where we lay our scene. Luna Chang has everything. Her middle-class parents are upwardly mobile and well-educated. They dote on her – she would describe it as them being overprotective and overbearing – and only want the best for her. She’s well liked and Stanford bound. Hunter Yee’s family has nothing. They’re always on the move, always looking over their shoulders. His father is bitter, his mother exhausted, and his younger brother Cody anxious. The Yees and the Changs must share space in Fairbridge’s Chinese American community, but their mutual enmity is an open secret. When our star-cross’d lovers, Hunter and Luna, finally meet, no amount of parental strife can keep them apart.
As the archer and the girl obsessed with the moon are pulled together, darkness lurks. All over town, the earth is cracking open. Deep fissures appear, a foul stench erupting from the soil. Strange fireflies unlike anything Luna has seen keep appearing at her windows. Cody discovers a book that writes its own stories. Hunter, who has the uncanny ability of perfect aim, suddenly can’t breathe well without Luna’s help. A powerful, magical object is stolen and then stolen again. And a sinister man hunts Hunter’s family with an unfaltering intensity. All these forces spiral closer and closer until they collide in a frantic finale. The lovestruck teens are destined to be together and destined to be apart.
I fell in love with Pan’s writing style with her first book, and she’s even better in her second. She has somehow managed to combine descriptions that are as lyrical as epic poetry with dialogue and narrative text that sounds like real teenagers.
Luna was a cloud beside the sun. A star dropped in the sky. She was a leaf drifting on a high wind.
She liked Hunter. Like liked him. And he liked her right back. He was in like with her, he’d said. Their words had been like a spell muttered beneath the moon. It had transformed the air between them – they were breathing something different from the standard issue oxygen that everyone else got.
It feels like the kind of story that is told rather than read, like a play or a cultural legend. I planon going back later and listening to the audiobook (narrated by Natalie Naudus, Shawn K. Jain & David Shih) just to get the full experience.
It’s not often you get a YA novel that includes point-of-view scenes with both adults and younger siblings. Besides Hunter and Luna, we spend quite a bit of time with their parents, Hunter’s younger brother Cody, and Rodney Wong, the Tybalt of the story. Interestingly, Pan opts for third-person POV rather than first person, by far the most common POV in YA these days. It makes it easier for her to jump between all the different characters and still keep it strictly young adult (as opposed to an adult novel with teen protagonists). Hunter and Luna are the most intriguing of the cast by dint of being the main characters, and many of the other POVs focus on backstory and subplot stuff. The excursions are enlightening and give more depth to the secondary characters, so they aren’t wasted space. It also adds another layer of winks and nudges toward Shakespeare’s play, with its sprawling cast and their contrasting and conflicting motivations.
I would have liked a little more time with the ending. Pan breezes through it so quickly I had to re-read it a few times to catch everything. That being said, I thought the content of the ending was pitch perfect for the story Pan was telling. It harkens back to the stories it draws influence from while also rejecting melodramatic tragedy for something more poignant and heartfelt.
In particular, the ending offers few answers to the many questions Pan poses. We don’t learn the whys underlying the strange things happening in Fairbridge, nor do we need to. This story is closer to magical realism than contemporary fantasy. Pan is more interested in what fantastical things are happening, rather than why they’re happening. The ending doesn’t neatly tie everything up in a bow any more than the myths and legends Pan is referencing do. Sometimes, magic just is.
Overall, An Arrow to the Moon is a strong second book by a talented author. With a poet’s flair for the romantic, Emily X.R. Pan weaves an intimate yet epic story about star-crossed lovers, family feuds, and inescapable destinies.
Alex Brown is a queer Black librarian and writer. They have written two books on the history of Napa County, California’s marginalized communities. They write about adult and young adult science fiction, fantasy, and horror as well as BIPOC history and librarianship. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and access set the foundation of all their work. Alex lives in Southern California with their pet rats and ever-increasing piles of books.
This review and more like it in the August 2022 issue of Locus.
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