At the beginning of this year, I stumbled across a captivatingly beautiful novel on Book of the Month: Woven in Moonlight by Isabel Ibañez, her debut and the first in a new duology. But it wasn’t just the cover and the fantasy themes that grabbed my attention. I was also excited to read a book set in Bolivia – or a magical version of it. My husband is from their neighbor Peru, so I’m always looking for books set in South America.
I finally read Woven in Moonlight, and just in time: Its sequel, Written in Starlight, comes out in one month!
Woven in Moonlight is a YA fantasy whisking readers away to a historical fantasy version of Bolivia. It begins 10 years after the Llacsans overthrew the Illustrians, a war that ravaged many and instilled new power in La Ciudad Blanca, modeled after the real Bolivian city of Sucre. The Illustrians were banished to an area outside the city, but tensions remain high and they plan to take back the power.
The Illustrians have their hopes in Catalina, the Condesa (Countess), the only surviving member of the royal family. To keep her safe, a lookalike named Ximena acts as her decoy. When the Llacsan king Atoc summons the Condesa to wed him, Ximena goes in Catalina’s place. Her mission is to find his source of power and return it to the Illustrians; failing that, she’ll kill King Atoc.
But while Ximena is held captive in the Castillo, searching for clues and weaving secret messages for the Illustrians, she starts to relearn the history between her people and the Llacsans. She even grows to like and trust some of the Llacsans. Ximena is faced with questioning whose side she’s on and what the right course is – not just for those in power, but for the people overall.
Woven in Moonlight is a quick yet immersive read. While the pages fly by, the setting and culture are richly drawn, bringing the story to life. So often I find that books can be either quick or immersive, but Isabel Ibañez has deftly achieved both in her debut novel.
I love the book’s setting in Bolivia (or a magical version of it). My husband is Peruvian, and lately I’ve been searching for more books set in his home and neighboring countries. I enjoyed getting to know Bolivia here – not just its geography and people, but also its history and culture.
The summary for Woven in Moonlight highlights that it’s inspired by Bolivian politics and history. While I admittedly don’t know much about either, I did find this story to be illuminating. I certainly plan to learn more about Bolivia’s history and politics now! The deep conflicts between the Illustrians and the Llacsans parallel the kinds of conflicts seen between various groups of people around the world, historically and to this day. It can even be compared to what’s going on the United States right now.
One thing I love about this book, though, is how Isabel Ibañez demonstrates the power of getting to know the other. The more Ximena interacts with the Llacsans and learns their version of history, their version of the conflict with the Illustrians, the more she questions everything she believed. This is a powerful and universal message. People fear and hate those they don’t know. However, if we can recognize our own faults and their merits, and see how we’re fundamentally the same, we can learn to work together for common goals. We can live together in harmony. Woven in Moonlight offers a beautiful message that I fully believe in.
Throughout the book, Ximena is meant to be a decoy for the real Condesa. Indeed, she’s apparently spent the last 10 years – more than half of her life – acting as the decoy. While I found this to be an interesting premise and background for the main character, her actions made it hard to believe. In all honesty, Ximena isn’t at all good at acting like the Condesa. She’s impulsive, unruly, and naive. You’d think she’d be better at acting like the Condesa by now, right? She makes far too many dumb mistakes, and it gets rather annoying. I’m not sure how any of the others believed she was the Condesa, because her acting skills are seriously lacking.
But beyond Ximena’s foolhardiness, I did really love her magical ability to weave with moonlight. Her ability to create animate llamas, frogs, and birds is fascinating and sweet. It’s one of my favorite elements of Woven in Moonlight, and one that brings needed tenderness to the story. I really enjoyed all the magical elements of the book, and I’m excited to get to know Catalina’s magic in the sequel.
Another element I enjoyed was the mystery sounding El Lobo, a rogue actor who seems to be against King Atoc… yet not necessarily for the Condesa. As Ximena starts inadvertently interacting with him, it’s fun to guess along with her as to what his real identity could be. Does she know him? Who could he be? Why does he do all of this? Though I admit, when we learn his true identity, I had a hard time updating the “real” character with how El Lobo looks and behaves – I’d imagined them in such different ways, it was hard to see them as the same guy!
I went into Woven in Moonlight knowing it would be a magical, South American fantasy, and so I expected some adventure. This book actually has a lot more action than I’d anticipated, though – lots of sword fights and anger-induced earthquakes and casualties along the way. It may be a bit too action-y for my taste, actually, though I still enjoyed it.
Finally, one of my favorite things about Woven in Moonlight is how much Spanish is sprinkled throughout the novel. There’s a short glossary at the back of the book, but far, far more Spanish words are used in every chapter, on every page. Personally, as someone who (kind of) speaks Spanish, I love how bilingual this book is. For me, it actually helps improve my language skills. I imagine it could be difficult for someone who doesn’t speak any Spanish, but for the most part it’s easy enough to figure out by context. There’s also some Quechua, mostly as character names, and I believe all of those have translations in the back. In any case, the generous inclusion of Spanish and Quechua here helped immerse me in its Bolivian setting. Love it!
Woven in Moonlight is a thought-provoking yet action-packed book, blending politics and prejudice against other groups of people with moon magic and fight scenes. The Bolivian fantasy backdrop is beautiful, and the characters are mostly likable, if a bit impulsive sometimes.
I’ll definitely read the sequel, Written in Starlight, due in January 2021. I’m also already excited for Isabel Ibañez’s 2022 book, Together We Burn, set in a magical Spain. My husband and I met in Spain, so anything set in my favorite European country is a yes from me!
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