Queerness and Monstrosity in "Night Shine" and "Moon Dark Smile" by Tessa Gratton

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*This essay spoils major elements of NIGHT SHINE and MOON DARK SMILE by Tessa Gratton.

Playing with conceptions of monstrosity and queerness (in both the strange and gender senses of the word), NIGHT SHINE and MOON DARK SMILE take the reader on a transformational journey which invites them to see themselves in an assortment of queer and fantastical experiences. Featuring young people at many possible stages of queerness and gender non-conformity, they model paths from non-understanding to joyful strangeness, and many shades in-between. The duology shows the importance of defying boundaries to achieve strangeness, the need to embrace change to allow growth, the joy of queer adults as role models, and the power of names in shaping one's identity.

In the world of NIGHT SHINE and MOON DARK SMILE, magic is the domain of those who are outside of binary social roles, whether due to gender or some other facet of themselves which is unable to fit neatly into two generic options. A core feature of the worldbuilding is that in order to do magic and/or become a sorcerer one must transcend dualities in some way. Most of the ways to accomplish this make one monstrous in the eyes of society, such as straddling life and death. Because the mere fact of being someone with magic means that some core social assumptions have been transgressed, their binaries blurred, sorcerers are assumed to be monstrous. Those remaining in normal dualities don't have to know exactly what someone did to become a sorcerer in order to be certain they have done (and continue to do) something strange.

Before NIGHT SHINE begins, Nothing was the demon of the Fifth Mountain and the familiar of the Sorceress Who Eats Girls. The Sorceress gave that demon half her heart and the demon was reborn in human form as Nothing, companion to Prince Kiran. It is this partially missing heart which drives the Sorceress to eat girls in her efforts to keep the mountain alive. If she can persuade Nothing to return to her and resume their previous relationship, she won't need to consume girls to survive, thus helping her be less actively monstrous without diminishing her queerness. Upon meeting her and getting to know her, Nothing started to fall in love with the Sorceress, becoming torn between her loyalty to Kiran, and her new love for the Sorceress.

The Sorceress Who Eats Girls is implied to do so both metaphorically and literally. In the opening chapter of NIGHT SHINE, the Sorceress bargains with a young girl for a kiss, and then when offering a second one she consumes the girl whole. That chapter is shown from the girl's perspective, and it feels like it's meant to set up a horror story, even though that's not the story's genre overall. Switching immediately to Nothing, in the palace, figuring out that her prince, Kiran, has been replaced by a copy and is actually somewhere else. Soon Nothing and the Prince's guard, Sky, find out that the Sorceress Who Eats Girls has kidnapped Kiran, the Prince who is also a beautiful maiden. It's a strange kind of gender-affirming experience, where being kidnapped and locked up is an objectively terrible thing, but it's one that happens because the Sorceress recognizes Kiran's femininity within his overall genderqueerness. Nothing is confused when she finds out her prince has been kidnapped by the Sorceress Who Eats Girls, as it implies something about Kiran that doesn't fit within Nothing's understanding of gender, and she wasn't previously privy to any of his gender-nonconforming feelings.

Kiran, son of the Empress and her consorts, is determined to be the next ruler, and is willing to hide his genderqueerness for the sake of gaining and keeping power. He's possessive and controlling, assuming that his friends' wishes will align with his, and pressuring them subtly however he can to keep them near without noticing their constraints. He knew Nothing was a demon because as a child he used her true name to control her. He says he hasn't done that before, but then very shortly after denying it he uses her name to make Nothing forget that she loves the Sorceress. Narratively, this implies that he has done it before, Nothing just doesn't remember. Nothing feels worse and worse when this part of herself is suppressed to make her fit Kiran better, and shortly thereafter renames herself "Night Shine", partially breaking the hold Kiran had on her. His command to forget her love for the Sorceress is still in effect, however, and Shine returns to the palace with Kiran to help him fit in with the court, and to fend off suspicions that anyone might have about why a Prince was kidnapped by the Sorceress Who Eats Girls. Kiran starts to explore his genderqueer identity, eventually using a system of earrings to communicate to Night Shine and Sky how he's feeling. More earrings indicate more complicated and socially transgressive feelings about gender and his body on any particular day. His story is one of the pressures to remain closeted for the sake of others, or for personal goals which would be more difficult to achieve in the context of social pressure. At first I found his story sad, as he could have stayed in the mountain, with Sky, Shine, and the Sorceress, and had a queer polycule far away from the strict social rules of the court. But also, he's free to choose that he'd rather fit himself into a place that gives him power, and I like that this book lets Kiran and Shine make very different choices about how to handle their understandings of gender and themselves.

Sky is Kiran's bodyguard, in love with him no matter what gender he is, and eventual friend to Nothing/Shine. Before the story opens, Sky and Kiran spent the summer traveling as husband and wife, providing Kiran with a judgement-free space to be a version of himself, a beautiful maiden, in a way that he'd never been able to before. Sky never declares his own spectrum of attraction, he's just steadfastly devoted to Kiran and cares about Nothing/Shine, even when acting with care means he upsets Kiran's plans. This is shown most clearly towards the end of NIGHT SHINE when Sky gives Shine a gift to remind her of the Sorceress, thinking that Shine knows the Sorceress is about to be attacked and killed in her mountain. This gesture seems to be in hopes that Shine will stir herself to action to save this person she cared for. Instead, Sky's gift is what prompts Shine to learn about the attack, something Kiran had deliberately kept from her because he was trying to delay her from leaving him until it was too late.

In the end, Shine and the Sorceress are reunited and the attack is thwarted, but the Sorcerer of the Fourth Mountain (one of the attackers) is slain in the process. Sky and Kiran go to live in the palace, with Kiran sealed to the demon, Moon, and no longer able to travel. Sky approaches Shine and the Sorceress to ask Shine to forgive Kiran, and her response tells him she has done so in that moment. This happy ending exists for all four characters, as the best equilibrium which allows each to be theirself without conforming to each other's goals. The Sorceress has Shine and no longer needs to eat girls to keep the mountain alive; Shine has the Sorceress and is learning how to be a mountain and a girl; Kiran has the power he wanted and seems to be willing to live within many of the associated constraints; and Sky is Kiran's First Consort even though he can't give him a child with his body, as is normally expected for that position.

While the ending of NIGHT SHINE was the best that could be had for the characters at the time, MOON DARK SMILE is about daring for something better, even if the path to get there means spending a while feeling worse.

Raliel Dark-Smile, daughter of Kiran Dark-Smile (The Emperor with the Moon in His Mouth) and his consorts, First Consort Sky and Second Consort Elegant Waters, has spent her childhood in the palace with Moon, the great demon who is bound to the palace and to her parents. If she follows their path, she will be bound to Moon and to the palace when she comes of age. As is custom, she sets out on her heir's journey, to get to see the world one time before being barred from travel ever after. In what will be just one of many ways that she bends the rules to try to for something better, she requests to go on her journey a few months early, so she can see the snow her mother loves so much. Another, far more consequential deviation is that Raliel takes Moon with her, letting him leave the palace for the first time since the binding was laid. Their real goal for the heir's journey is to figure out a way to let Moon be free, permanently. Osian Redpop is sent with Raliel as her bodyguard, but he's secretly the son of the Sorcerer of the Fourth Mountain who was slain in NIGHT SHINE. Osian, a trans man, is sent by his mother to kill the Emperor, or at least kill the Emperor's daughter to make him suffer. Accepted as himself for the first time (rather than as the daughter his mother raised), Osian becomes close to Raliel and eventually turns against his mother's plan for vengeance.

In MOON DARK SMILE, the villains are those who refuse to grow and change, while the so-called "monsters" embrace their queerness and reject binaries in order to become the best versions of their new selves. There are different paths to magic, but all involve stepping outside of binaries in some way. This can be through queering gender, blurring life and death, or anything that breaks the strict dualities which most people treat as inherent and immutable. Osian's mother is an example of this refusal to change. She cannot accept that simultaneously her husband (the late Sorcerer of the Fourth Mountain) was dead and the people she saw as responsible were alive. She takes this even further by wanting to kill not merely Kiran, the then-prince who played a role, but his child, desiring to replicate her own pain in him through the death of a loved one. Unable to accept that her son chooses not to kill Raliel, she sees his inaction as a failure to be corrected. Even after meeting Raliel and seeing how Osian and Raliel were now friends, she tries to kill Raliel to complete her obsessive vengeance. Osian's mother's rejects the coexistence of uncomfortable truths, wielding murder in an attempt to eliminate the dissonance in her heart. She clings to dualities with a grasp so uncompromising that it turns her in the monstrous one, trying to kill a child who played no role in her original loss.

Kiran Dark-Smile played a mixed role in NIGHT SHINE, both as friend and as antagonist, thwarting Nothing/Shine's desires when they clashed with his own. He had one clear goal as a young man in NIGHT SHINE: to ascend the throne and claim his power. It seemed as though in pursuit of power he had given up the chance to be seen as himself; a prince, a maiden, and someone wilder and stranger than any one gender could encompass. In MOON DARK SMILE, as the Emperor with the Moon in His Mouth, Kiran is accepted by his court and loved by his family. Because he'd made mistakes with Shine's name and autonomy in NIGHT SHINE, he takes specific steps to do better by letting his daughter choose her own name, and to make it clear that if she didn't see herself as a daughter all she needed to do was tell her family and take on whatever label felt right to her. As she set off for her heir's journey, she dressed in boy's clothes for the road and he took the opportunity to affirm that if this marked an adjustment in her gender he would welcome back a prince. This combination of quiet fluidity in his own presentation and occasional overt statements of support engendered in Raliel an acceptance of queerness and change in others which serves her well throughout the rest of the story. When Osian Redpop briefly betrays Raliel, the betrayal is the issue, not anything to do with his gender. As a reader living in a world where trans people are often treated as sneaky or deceitful just for existing as ourselves, it is one more positive detail for Osian's gender to be such a non-issue when he does something which hurts Raliel. This echoes the way that Kiran's betrayal of Night Shine's trust when she was still Nothing is purely an issue of boundaries overstepped, not one of gendered duplicitousness. 

Kiran would have accepted Raliel coming back from her heir's journey as a prince, but that's not the change she has in mind. In order for Moon to leave the palace with Raliel, she and Moon used an amulet to give Moon a place to hold much of its essence outside of her. Over time, as Raliel and Moon learn more of sorcery, they begin to think that the amulet which enables their travels has begun to hold them back from becoming a sorcerer and her demon familiar. One of the stressful thing about transitions, gender or otherwise, is that they usually mean spending some time feeling worse in order to feel better later. The in-between can be a goal, or just a place to land for a while, but the process of moving from a defined space to somewhere else is often stressful and strange, even if the end goal is something much desired. While it was useful for a time, continuing to reside in the amulet is keeping Moon and Raliel bound to dualities. They're caught in this awful middle zone where they need to break free of the amulet in order to achieve sorcerery, but until Raliel is a sorcerer they won't have the power to unbind Moon from the amulet. In the end, Moon figures out a solution which involves embracing sorcery through changing its name, in a move that most transgender readers will recognize instantly. Just as Night Shine's titular name change freed her from further control, Moon's new name describes a very important change to reality and forces an immediate action on a fundamental level. Moon's new name forces a way out of this liminal space, unbinding Moon from the amulet and freeing Raliel to do as she wished with the rest of her life.

NIGHT SHINE was written as a love letter to genderqueer teens, and that focus is obvious throughout the whole duology. From the "yes, and" approach to queerness and monstrosity, to their embrace of the power of renaming for claiming and shaping identity, they celebrate beauty in the unexpected and finding oneself in the strange. Early in MOON DARK SMILE, I was uncertain whether Kiran's genderqueerness was understood and accepted by the court, or if he only felt like himself around his family. Later in MOON DARK SMILE, Raliel meets a trans woman who specifically says that Kiran's example as a prominent genderqueer person who was met with acceptance gave her the courage to live as her own authentic self. While it's not clear how many of the people at court and beyond understood his fluidity of gender, whatever level of coding is present is enough to serve as a positive example for others, even beyond the palace. By developing these characters across two books, and specifically discussing how Kiran's example has helped others, Tessa Gratton shows generations of queer people thriving and figuring out how to be themselves in this fictional world.


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