Hoshima Suzume leads a tragic life. Shortly after the death of her father and cousin, her beautiful but cold mother marries her father's wealthy friend, Terayama Ryoichi in order to avoid poverty and ruin. It quickly becomes apparent that Terayama-san is a cruel and selfish man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Forced to flee from her stepfather, Suzume assumes the identity of Rin, the kitchen servant, and later Yue, the courtesan, in order to take revenge on Terayama-san for the injuries he's inflicted on her. Along the way Suzume falls in love with Otieno, a handsome foreigner, and is mentored by Youta, a servant, and Akira, an ex-courtesan, who help her develop her power of illusion called shadow-weaving.
I hate to give points to a book simply because of ethnic diversity—I shouldn't have to because it shouldn't be a rare occurrence—but unfortunately in the current YA market I must praise Shadows on the Moon for not only having a Japanese-inspired setting (the Moonlit Land), but also for having a love interest from an African-inspired culture. It's nice to see an author attempt to write a story from a non-western perspective even if in many ways the author's own culture comes through in the text.
My main problem with Shadows on the Moon is that, although the Moonlit Land borrows heavily from historic Japan including language, customs, food, and clothing, the characters were very modern and western in their thoughts and actions. For example, there seemed to be a distinct lack of respect for authority, and the importance of honor is absent. Most of the characters, including Suzume, are very individualist rather than collectivist. In contrast, their customs are based on a non-western collectivist belief system, which begs the question of how these cultural practices came to be.
Further, the main character idealizes Otieno's culture, which is open and expressive, two very western concepts. This was problematic in two ways. One, because it assumes that expressiveness and openness are better than the alternative, and two, because there was no explanation of where Suzume had learned her appreciation for foreign culture. It's also interesting to note that I thought the characters, including those from the Moonlit Land, were shown to be fairly expressive, though we're told that they aren't.
The second biggest issue I had with this book was the writing. It was overly simplistic for the targeted age group. Although it improves towards the end, the first two-thirds were filled with short choppy sentences and lacked sentence variability. Additionally, the author chose to throw in random Japanese words throughout the text, which were distracting. The words were not used consistently and there were some instances where the words weren't defined, which could be problematic for those not familiar with the Japanese language. On top of this, using Japanese words simply didn't make sense because the story didn't take place in Japan. Presumably the characters were speaking in their own made-up language which was then translated into English because a) no one would be able to understand it, and b) because most authors are not as brilliant as Tolkein and lack the skills needed to develop their own language. Given this assumption, it makes no sense to include Japanese words when English words would have sufficed.
In addition to the cultural issues and simplistic writing, I found that the pacing and characters to be problematic. Several times over the course of the novel, I was very bored because of how slowly the plot moves. Too much time is spent on mundane tasks, such as the kitchen tasks during the Rin portion of the book, and courtesan training in the Yue portion. There is surprisingly little action in this story for how long it is.
Additionally, I didn't find the characters to be very compelling. Many of them were unlikable, others were underdeveloped, and Suzume is inconsistent. She also frustrated me quite a bit because a lot of her unhappiness was due to her own actions—or inaction—which made it hard to sympathize with her. Suzume's love interest was far too underdeveloped for me to feel anything for him, and their love was unbelievable since there was no basis for it. It was another case of instalove as acknowledged by the love interest himself. Neither their personalities nor their backgrounds seemed to be very compatible. The only thing they had in common was magic.
In short, this book at its heart wasn't very Japanese, the writing was weak, and the plot and characters weren't very compelling. I would recommend that readers looking for a good Asian-inspired fantasy story check out Eon: Dragoneye Reborn and its sequel Eona by Alison Goodman, which are better written and have a much more developed plot, romance, and mythology.