Anne Leonard – Moth and Spark

anneleonard-mothandsparkPrince Corin has been given the task of freeing the dragons from their bondage to the Empire. However, it seems that that not even the dragonriders themselves know how these terrifying beasts are kept under control.

When Tam, a doctor’s daughter, arrives in the capital she makes an amazing discovery: she is a Seer, gifted with visions.

Sparks fly when Corin and Tam meet … but it’s not all happily ever after. Not only is the prince forbidden to marry a commoner, but war is coming to Caithen. Torn between love and duty, they must work together to uncover the secret that threatens to destroy their country.

Moth and Spark is Anne Leonard’s debut novel and one that grabbed my attention from the word go. I mean dragons, revolt, and magic—what’s not to love? And I had a fantastic time reading the book. It has a somewhat Austen-esque sensibility to its language, something acknowledged by the author in the relevant section in the back of the book, which I just love. Much of the naming conventions were familiar as they seemed to have been drawn from Hellenic culture. For example the Empire is called Mycene, Tam’s name is Liddean – perhaps derived from Lydia – Corin and Caithen reminded me of Corinth and so on, yet the world itself didn’t really seem to reflect this Hellenic influence. Instead it’s very much its own thing, more medieval on the cusp of the Renaissance than classical. The setting and language were wonderful as were the characters that populate the novel. 

But at the same time I felt a bit conflicted about the narrative and mostly about its treatment of its heroine Tam. On the surface it’s all I could want in a book, a woman with agency set to change the ways of society, enlightened King and Prince who actually agree that things ought to be different and yet there was something that felt a little off. I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was that nagged me, but serendipitously the morning after I finished the book I read Liz Bourke’s latest Sleeps with Monsters column which dealt with representation of women in fiction. There was one section dealing with subjectivity and agency that crystallised exactly what was bothering me about Tam’s development and I’m going to quote the most germane part of said section here.

Because often the writer thinks that they have given the female characters—sometimes there is only one female character—subjectivity and agency, but they have written the character with subjectivity and agency only so long as those qualities revolve around a male character.

And that right there was exactly what I felt Tam fell victim to. When we first meet her she’s just arrived at court and not too impressed with the position of women there – presumably everywhere, but court is the book’s main focus – and definitely set on not following that path. Tam’s an intelligent girl, who has been trained by her father, a medical doctor, and has been his assistant in treating patients for years. She wants to be useful on her own terms, to utilise the knowledge she has, not be an ornament and let all her training go to waste. But as soon as she becomes enamoured with Corin and enmeshed in his affairs, she still makes her own decisions and does unconventional things for a woman, except not in her own cause but to aid or remain with him. Added to that was the fact that both Corin and his father, King Aram, at different times deplore the fact that the position of women is so circumscribed by propriety, not to mention that both Corin’s sisters are considered capable and brave, yet neither of them seem to actually actively try and change how women are treated. Together these things grated and for me lessened the impact of Tam’s character. Because Tam is truly wonderful.

Tam is witty, dry, stubborn and smart. She’s a rationalist and unapologetic about it, sometimes even straying into not-quite scorning the other girls’ less cerebral interests. But she also has a good heart and wants to do right by those she cares about. Tam is an outsider in more ways than one. Not only are her interest different, she’s a commoner and only welcome at court by the invitation of her sister-in-law who is a noble. So while she is at the court, she is not of the court and this colours most of the interactions she has at court, not just with the nobles, but with those who serve them as well. Prince Corin is lovely as well. He’s not arrogant, but competent and sometimes not sure enough of his own competence. In many ways Tam is the more mature one in their relationship and the one who is supporting him, not the other way around. Their relationship is delightful, despite the disparity in their positions they treat each other mostly as equals and their banter and verbal sparring is very entertaining. While I found Tam the more interesting character, Corin’s growth during the book was the more interesting and profound. He goes from a competent, but self-conscious young man, to a self-assured leader.

The court and its politics were fantastic. I really loved the world Leonard created and the sections at the Caithen court and in the women’s wing strongly reminded me of regency- era novels of manners. The simultaneous camaraderie and rivalry between the young ladies hoping – or perhaps expected is a better description – to find a husband is deliciously sharp-witted an warm. Jenet is a lovely friend to Tam, as is her sister-in-law Cina, but even the odious Alina is well-drawn and while not likeable or sympathetic, she is interesting and in a way rather pitiable. The intricacies with the different countries that were part of the Empire and those outside of it were fascinating as were the role the dragons and their riders play in the Empire’s dominance and the way they were brought under the Empire’s control by the wizards. I also rather loved the way the wizards were part of Caithen, yet independent and apart at the same time.

Moth and Spark is very much a standalone novel. The story is complete in and of itself. I’d love to learn more about the world the book is set in, but at the same time I couldn’t pinpoint where the story is incomplete to dig in further; I just want to know more about Caithen. If you like complex political novels, delightful regency romance, and dragons then Moth and Spark is a novel that should speak to you strongly. I absolutely adored it, despite my reservations laid out above and I can’t wait to discover how Leonard will develop as a writer. The book was published in trade paperback at the start of this year by Headline and will be released in paperback at the start of July.

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Thank you to Tiemen at the wonderful American Book Center for providing me with a copy of the book to review.

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