Woven in Moonlight
by Isabel Ibañez
Published January 7, 2020, by Page Street Books
Years ago, the once-great Ilustrian kingdom was conquered by the Llascans, a group of people long looked down upon by the Illustrians. But now the tables have turned, and the remnants of the Illustrian people cling to their only remaining sanctuary. But time is running out for them. The Llascan king Atoc has laid siege to the sanctuary and in spite of the efforts of a handful of heroic Ilustrians, the Condesa Catalina cannot keep Atoc at bay forever. Catalina has a secret, though: when the Condesa appears in public, it is not Catalina the people see, but a decoy- a young woman named Ximena who looks just like Catalina. When King Atoc demands that the Illustrians send the Condesa to the capital so he can marry her and ensure his rule, Ximena goes in Catalina’s place to spy on Atoc and the Llascan nobility in the hopes that she will find an ancient weapon that will help the Illustrians retake their homeland. With only a matter of weeks before the wedding, Ximena must work quickly and sends her messages thanks to her ability to weave threads of moonlight into the traditional tapestries she makes. But the longer Ximena stays in the Castillo, the more she realizes that nothing– and no one– is what she thought it was.
“Though my people would disagree, I secretly think their use of color in their weaving is beautiful. I dye my wool various shades of neutrals to keep with Illustrian tradition. But sometimes I crave to pair colors together to see what I could come up with. There’s only so much you can with art when using white as the main color.”
For many young adult fantasy heroines, their fighting skills take precedence over everything else they might be able to do. They may mention a past time or talk about how they would love to take up art or music someday, but these desires are often forgotten about as soon as a fight happens, never to be brought up again. No so for Ximena, whose weaving skills prove to be more important than her ability to use a sword. She has the magical ability to turn moonlight into a silvery thread that only other Illustrians can see, and with this skill– and thanks to her genuine love for weaving– she can communicate with Catalina.
Ibañez’s family hails from Bolivia, and her inclusion of traditional Bolivian weaving is not the only thing that brings life to her story. The characters often use Spanish words and phrases, tossing them in without explanation or translation, an addition that feels perfectly natural after a few pages. Bolivian foods are also included, and the effect is to not only add mouth-watering details, but also to bring disparate characters together. Ximena and her Llascans guards might be diametrically opposed to one another, but they can share a love for the sweet foods available at the market.
The story element that shines the brightest, though, is Ximena herself. She begins the story as a headstrong young freedom fighter whose identity is wrapped up in that of her friend, the Condesa Catalina. Ximena cannot truly be herself– especially in public– and so feels that her whole identity has been subsumed into Catalina’s. By the end of the story, however, Ximena has learned to find her own identity. The headstrong freedom fighter realizes that her perspective might not be the only one and that her people’s enemy have a reason for their longstanding hatred of the Illustrians. It’s an unexpected message from a young adult fantasy novel, whose heroes and heroines often view their enemies as a faceless other and rarely try to see things from another’s perspective.
Woven in Moonlight is Ibañez’s debut novel, and while it may have a few flaws– certain elements are predictable and the ending could be seen as a bit too pat– the overall effect is engaging and charming. It is a story that is easy to fall into with characters who are even easier to fall into. If the quality of Woven in Moonlight is anything to go by, Isabel Ibañez will have a starry future indeed.