So the other day on Twitter I said, “Waaah, I need something to read that is fun and well-written and smart,” and I got a lot of great suggestions but this book–Alaya Johnson’s Moonshine–was exactly what I was looking for. It’s always awesome when someone can recommend exactly the book that will scratch my itch (thank you, person I am not sure wants to be named!).
Set in 1920’s New York, this book is told from the point of view of Zephyr Hollis, who is a very complicated person. She’s the daughter of a demon-hunter, is somehow immune to vampires, and is a staunch advocate for the rights of what are called in this New York, “Others”–vampires, skinwalkers, faeries, and other supernatural creatures. She also teaches night school and attends protests in what little free time she has. Zephyr is awesome.
As the book opens, Zephyr comes across a little boy who has just been turned into a vampire and since she can’t leave any cause unchampioned, she decides to take him with her and find a safe place to stow him until he gets over the worst of being changed into a vampire (in this setting, the younger you’re turned, the more likely you are to lose your memory and significant parts of your personality). One her students, Amir, offers to help with the boy if, in exchange, she’ll help him find Rinaldo, Italian mob boss and master vampire. Amir, of course, has secrets of his own and they’re not exactly small ones.
Zephyr agrees and with that the plot is off and running. I found it a trifle predictable in places, but I was okay with that–part of the fun of this book was trying to see how much I could figure out before Zephyr did.
Johnson’s worldbuilding is seriously excellent–this alternate New York City is a seamless blend of history and fantasy and has a staggeringly diverse cast of characters. In this book, paranormal creatures aren’t a substitute for characters of color–they are in addition to characters of color. This is, in many ways, extraordinary for the genre (and I wish it weren’t). On top of that, Johnson’s characters are real multi-dimensional people, where the definition of what constitutes a people is fairly broad–they have lives of their own, they have families and prejudices and personal hobby horses and it’s a gloriously messy mix of personalities.
My favorite thing about this book, in fact, was the way that Johnson dealt with these difficult and complicated issues. The text acknowledges these issues quite explicitly in the form of Zephyr who is compelled to use what privilege she has in the service of those who have less. The awful reality of prejudice and systemic oppression is a major theme in this book but in a way that isn’t preachy or condescending and always in service of a compelling story about one of the most interesting protagonists I’ve run across in paranormal fantasy in a long, long time. I’ll definitely be picking up the second book as well as adding Johnson’s other books to my ever-expanding wishlist.