Woven in Moonlight by Isabel Ibañez
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A lush tapestry of magic, romance, and revolución, drawing inspiration from Bolivian politics and history.
Ximena is the decoy Condesa, a stand-in for the last remaining Illustrian royal. Her people lost everything when the usurper, Atoc, used an ancient relic to summon ghosts and drive the Illustrians from La Ciudad. Now Ximena’s motivated by her insatiable thirst for revenge, and her rare ability to spin thread from moonlight.
When Atoc demands the real Condesa’s hand in marriage, it’s Ximena’s duty to go in her stead. She relishes the chance, as Illustrian spies have reported that Atoc’s no longer carrying his deadly relic. If Ximena can find it, she can return the true aristócrata to their rightful place.
She hunts for the relic, using her weaving ability to hide messages in tapestries for the resistance. But when a masked vigilante, a warm-hearted princess, and a thoughtful healer challenge Ximena, her mission becomes more complicated. There could be a way to overthrow the usurper without starting another war, but only if Ximena turns her back on revenge—and her Condesa.
Heavily inspired by Bolivian culture and politics, Woven in Moonlight is culturally unapologetic.
There is one thing about Woven in Moonlight that you cannot possibly overlook: this is a book loaded with allusions to real world culture and politics. Ibañez is an OwnVoices Bolivian author, and she brings a great deal to the table, between descriptions of food and clothing and architecture that brim with life and history, to the integration of Spanish into her work, to the examination of colonialism and its effects on indigenous people. Her skill in descriptions leads to a book you can visualize particularly well in your mind, and the way she approaches the political conflict gives you the sense that this is not simply invented for the use of a YA rebellion plot.
Additionally, the use of Spanish in the book is not italicized, though a glossary is provided in the back for readers who do not know Spanish. Even if you aren’t familiar with all of the elements set forth in the book, it’s not difficult to adjust.
What may be difficult for some readers to adjust to, though, is the level of violence in the book. While it isn’t outrageously graphic, Ibañez does not shy away from depicting the violent consequences her characters face. No one is safe, and the price of revolution is steep.
The magic is enchanting and mysterious.
Possibly one of my favorite features of the book beyond the rich visual elements, I loved the magic system. Illustrians derive their magics from Luna, the moon goddess, while the Llacsans draw on the magic of their earth god. No two people have the same magic, though, nor the same degree of it. Ximena is able to weave tapestries from moonlight and give them life, while the true condesa, Catalina, is a seer who reads the stars. Among the Llacsans, Rumi is a healer, and Atoc can split the very earth.
These magics do not drive the plot so much as they facilitate certain plot points, but I loved their variety. A magic system without strict rigidity appeals to me greatly, and I’d love to see other magics in Inkasisa. That’s a major source of appeal for me.
But amidst the chaos, the characters left me wanting.
In such a political plot, I would hope the characters fuel the tension and keep me invested in their well-being. However, Woven in Moonlight dropped the ball here, leaving me with a royal decoy who felt coarse and inexperienced despite her many years as a decoy. I appreciated her intensity and the moments of softness when she works at her loom, but on the whole? She felt like a character who should not have survived such a situation for so long, impulsive and brash as she is, delicate and secretive as her mission is.
The love interest, too, didn’t impress me, but we can probably chalk that up to my dislike for enemies to lovers that relies on withholding important truths. What else is new?
Most importantly in the character department, though, is my frustration with Ximena and the way she views the Llacsans. The Llacsans are the indigenous people of Inkasisa, while the Illustrations are the invaders from 400 years ago. On the one hand, it’s clear no one taught Ximena this part of her people’s history. On the other hand, she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge for so long that Illustrians do not have the claim they think they do over Inkasisa. Though Atoc may be a cruel tyrant, the framing of the Llacsans as savage usurpers didn’t strike me as nuanced choice. Couple that with an entire arc of Ximena gradually learning “oh, the Llacsans are people too I guess,” and you have me disappointed with the approach and interrogation of colonialism that I thought the book intended to dive into.
In the end, Woven in Moonlight has earned itself 3.5 stars for its magic and heart.
On the one hand, I really did value the cultural and political aspects of the book. I’ve not read any YA books before with Bolivian origins, let alone an OwnVoices Bolivian book, and I think it’s a valuable thing to support OwnVoices authors. Of course, a Bolivian reviewer could probably offer a much more nuanced review than myself. I have my eyes peeled for such a review, and will update this post as I find any.
On the other hand, I think Ibañez didn’t give her characters the weight they needed to drive a political story. Her treatment of colonialism also felt very surface-level in some ways. A narrative about the oppressor realizing the oppressed are human too? It’s a tired approach requiring more care than Woven in Moonlight appeared to offer.
A companion story set in the same world is supposedly forthcoming. I can’t see myself picking it up, as it follows Catalina the true Illustrian condesa, but we’ll have to wait and see. Maybe it will be an improvement on Woven in Moonlight’s faults. Or perhaps it will continue down the same road.
CW: loss of a loved one, violence, addiction, domestic abuse