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The Moon and the Sun
Vonda N. McIntyre
Pocket Books, 464 pages

Art: Gary Halsey
The Moon and the Sun
Vonda N. McIntyre
Vonda N. McIntyre's short story, "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" (Fireflood & Other Stories) won a Nebula Award when she was only in her twenties. The story was the basis for her novel, Dreamsnake, which went on to capture another Nebula as well as a Hugo award. She has written Star Wars: The Crystal Star which continues the adventures of George Lucas' Star Wars characters Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, and Chewbacca. Her Starfarers Series is a quartet of novels telling the tale of an alien contact specialist, J.C. Sauvage, and her colleagues in rebellion aboard the starship Starfarer.

Vonda N. McIntyre Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Moon and the Sun
Vonda N. McIntyre Interview
Vonda N. McIntyre Interview

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Catherine Asaro

In the Fall of 1997 a package appeared in my mailbox. Inside, I found a book called The Moon and The Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre. As a writer and reviewer, I receive many books, most all of them well worth the read. Given the number that come in, though, it may be many months after I receive one before I get to it. However, before a book goes into the to-read pile, I always flip through it and look at the first few paragraphs. So I did when I received The Moon and the Sun.

At four that morning I was still reading.

I simply had to finish it. My first thought, when I was done, was, "This book will redefine its genre." When I went to work on this review, over a year later, I wasn't surprised to learn of the acclaim the book has received. To name some of its achievements: the Nebula Award given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for the best science fiction or fantasy novel of the year, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1997, a five heart review from the Romance Reader web site, a 1997 Locus Recommended Book, and a James Tiptree, Jr. Award Short-List choice.

Set in Versailles, France, in 1693, The Moon and the Sun tells the story of a Marie-Josephe, a lady-in-waiting to the niece of Louis XIV -- the Sun King. Marie-Josephe's brother, Father Yves de la Croix, is a Jesuit and also the King's natural philosopher and explorer. He has brought the King a living sea woman and a dead male, both captured on an ocean voyage. So begins a rich tale of conscience, politics, science, history, and love.

The Moon and the Sun combines two demanding genres, with some remarkable twists unlike anything I've seen before. It is a science fiction story of first contact with an alien race, but told in a setting more often associated with fantasy. It is also historical romance at its best, the type of meticulously researched work that brings another era to life. McIntyre infuses it all with her marvelously unique style.

The Song of the Ocean

As a scientist, I found the interplay of science and the historical setting intriguing. Few hard science fiction novels take place in our past, unless they involve time travel. What McIntyre has done is in some ways harder: she accurately represents the state of science in our past, without twists or insights from the future. This book shows the growing pangs of real science. McIntyre's depiction of the investigations carried out by Yves and Marie-Josephe are authentic in methodology and technique. Marie-Josephe in particular exhibits a keen scientific intellect in her ability to solve problems, her explorations of ways to communicate with the sea woman, and her logical methods of deduction and induction.

The scenes where Marie-Josephe interacts with the sea woman are effective. Here McIntyre evokes another classic science fiction theme -- how do we create genuinely different alien life? Consider the sea woman's speech, which sounds like singing. In the ocean, the signals are transmitted by the water, similar to the speech of dolphins. Indeed, like a dolphin, she can "look inside" hollow objects by making sounds and listening to the reverberations.

As the book progresses, she and Marie-Josephe learn how to communicate. Her song evokes pictures for Marie-Josephe, in some cases so vivid that Marie-Josephe almost sees them as shadowy images in the gardens of Versailles. When the sea woman sings, Marie-Josephe draws pictures to portray her narrative for the King, hoping to delay the sea woman's slaughter. Intrigued by the stories, Louis lets the sea woman live, day by day. So Marie-Josephe calls her Scherzad, after Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights, invoking the tale of the clever bride who for a thousand and one nights spun entrancing tales that made her husband, the King, forget he intended to execute her at dawn.

The Moon and the Sun also portrays well how politics and the church affected scientific endeavor in that era. It includes careful detail, such as the repercussions Marie-Josephe risks by writing to a scientist whose country has hostile relations with France, or how she must stop her correspondence with Newton when she is sent to a convent. She and her brother Yves must also deal with the King's desire for the elusive immortality he believes he can attain by feasting on the sea woman. McIntyre portrays with biting clarity their internal struggle when the demands of conscience conflict with those of loyalty. As scientists, they also realize that what Louis wants is unlikely to the point of impossibility. But how can they tell him? They tread shifting sands of politics.

The Music of the Spheres

Science fiction is replete with the idea of the polymath -- a protagonist talented in many diversified disciplines. This isn't coincidence; in real life, artistic and linguistic gifts often pair with scientific or mathematical talent. The math-physics-music constellation is perhaps the best-known combination. Science fiction writer and Analog editor Stanley Schmidt, for example, is also a Ph.D. physicist, linguist, composer, and musician. The character of Marie-Joseph fits right into this tradition. McIntyre gets her personality down well, with sharp details, such as her fledgling attempts to quantify natural phenomena with equations. In essence, Marie-Josephe is struggling to derive chaos theory far ahead of its time. I found her a likable genius, unaffected and humble, with charm, integrity, and humor.

The book also does a good job depicting the barriers women encountered in those times to pursuing an interest in science or the arts. Marie-Josephe is seen only her brother's assistant, though she is actually the better scientist. She composes music that is played at court, but another composer takes credit. When it becomes known she wrote the music, she is castigated for inappropriate, even immoral, behavior. The piercing accuracy of McIntyre's portrayals can be painful, given that remnants of those attitudes still exist today. But Marie-Josephe is no 90s woman dressed in historical clothes; she is an authentic character who has incorporated many beliefs of her time even as she strains to break free of their strictures. Her accomplishments are all the more impressive for the resistance she encounters, not only from without, but within herself as well.

McIntyre's achievement goes deeper than simply telling a story. She gives a well-rendered depiction of why the accomplishments of women throughout history have often gone unacknowledged. Marie-Josephe manages to attain a measure of success because she works day and night, often going without sleep, so she can complete her duties as a lady-in-waiting while fulfilling her obligations to her brother and the King. It is a bruising schedule no one could keep up for long. However, it would have made no difference how great her talent or dedication if she never had the chance to pursue her work in the first place, or to receive the acknowledgment she earned. She succeeds also because she has the support of the King of France -- an ally few people can claim. The Moon and the Sun evokes a question as valid today as in the court of Louis XIV: How much has been lost to our world, throughout history, because women have been denied, either explicitly or through social strictures, the chance to realize their potential?

Shimmering Lyricism

McIntyre's prose is clean and polished, with a lyrical quality, spare on words and rich with imagery. The description of the King's flagship provides a glimpse of her style:

The galleon's captain shouted orders; the sailors hurried to obey. Canvas flapped, then filled; the immense square sails snapped taut in the wind. The ship creaked and groaned and leaned into its turn. The flag of Louis XIV fluttered, writing Nec Pluribus Impar, the King's motto, across the sky. The emblem of Louis XIV, a golden sunburst, shone from the galleon's foretopsail.

Free of the treacherous shoals, the galleon plunged ahead. Water rushed against the ship's sides. The gilt figurehead stretched its arms into sunlight and spray. Rainbows shimmered from its claws and from the flukes of its double tail. The carven sea monster flung colored light before it, for the glory of the King.

With only a few words, she creates a scene full of life, sights, sounds, action, and anticipation. This book comes alive in all the senses, evoking its world so well that the images were still clear in my mind fourteen months later, when I reread the book for this review. The historical background gains richness in the detail, from the clothing worn in the Sun King's court, to the gardens of Versailles, to one of the most realistic descriptions I've read of what it is like to ride sidesaddle.

At times I would have liked to see the prose style varied more. The sentences tended to have the same grammatical structure, which every now and then created a choppy quality. In a work of this high caliber, such effects become noticeable. However, this is a minor point. Overall, the story shimmers.

The Court of the Sun King

The characters in The Moon and Sun are well-layered, with complex personalities, neither paragons nor villains, but genuine people. It is no easy feat to make such characters credible when they are so different from the folk we encounter in our daily existence. But then, one aspect of science fiction is the creation of beings unlike any we know -- which could just as well apply to the members of the Sun King's court as to the denizens of another planet.

Beneath its glistening elegance, The Moon and the Sun quietly comments on how appearance, politics, personal status, and wealth affect our world view. Is the Sun King truly the towering figure everyone perceives? In fact, Louis XIV was only 5'5", small even for his time, balding, and with gout. He wore high-heeled shoes and a wig to compensate. Is Marie-Joseph the stunning beauty everyone claims? Or is she a normally attractive person whose stature as Yves's sister and a favorite of the King "enhances" her appearance. Power, it seems, equates to beauty in women and height in men.

With her protagonist, McIntyre delicately dismantles stereotypes. Marie-Josephe has no desire for her sexual power, but nevertheless it is there. She is not so much ravishing as she is desirable for her position of favor with Louis XIV, who treats her like a daughter. That status translates into her having sexual appeal to other members of the court. In our more traditional literature, women with sexualized "power" often end up unhappy, disturbed, or dead. I found it refreshing that Marie-Josephe is well-adjusted and pleasant. Not only is she still alive at the end of the book, she can look forward to a fulfilling life.

I enjoyed the engaging romance between Marie-Josephe and Count Lucien. Like much of the best romance fiction, it also provides social commentary. In this case, it had an unusual twist I wasn't aware of until well into the book. It finally dawned on me that Lucien was different from the usual romantic hero. On my second read through, I realized the signs had all been there, obvious once I knew. But on my first read through, it changed my entire perception of Lucien -- and then forced me to ask myself why. He remained the same character. With gentle grace, the book challenged me to examine my own preconceptions.

Often when I read stories that include social commentary, the commentary is so obvious that, although I may find it illuminating, it feels a bit like a lecture. This isn't necessarily a drawback; exposition is a literary device I enjoy for its own sake, as in a work such as Mona Clee's notable science fiction novel Overshoot. But the beauty of The Moon and the Sun is that I never saw it coming. The point was suddenly, simply, made. This is a superb example of what it means to show rather than tell a story.

One of the book's most powerful aspects, for me, is also one of its most subtle. After Marie-Josephe is bled by a doctor, the wound becomes infected. Lucien gives her a salve he hopes will help her heal. As an aside, Scherzad takes Marie-Josephe's wrist and covers the wound with her saliva. When the wrist heals, almost miraculously, Marie-Josephe and Lucien attribute it to his salve. However, the implication left for the reader is that the sea woman's saliva contained an antibiotic. Scherzad did have a measure of what the King sought, not immortality, but the ability to heal. That very ability was lost to almost everyone because they were too busy trying to take from Scherzad to comprehend that she might have had something she was willing to give if they treated her with the dignity due all men and women, whether human or of the sea.

In fact, the theme of opportunities squandered, because of arrogance, weaves throughout the book. The King's nephew, the Duke de Chartres, is a talented chemist and longs to pursue his interest in science. His position forbids him from such work, but he persists despite his lack of supporters. Marie-Josephe is one of the few people who recognizes his talent. Chartres squanders her respect because he can only relate to her in sexually aggressive terms, even though he knows she may be able to help him. The portrayal of how Louis's court reacts to those who represent the "other," whether it is the sea people, Marie-Josephe, or Count Lucien, offers much to think about in our own world.

The relationship between the King's brother, Monsieur Philippe, and the Chevalier de Lorraine is also well done. Monsieur could have been an unsympathetic character given that he spends most of his time making himself look beautiful. However, McIntyre makes him appealing. I'm not sure how she manages it; Monsieur doesn't do much, he is censured by many of the court members, and he probably survives only because he is the King's brother. Yet I liked him a great deal. In one passage, Monsieur's wife tells Marie-Josephe she wishes Monsieur would love someone worthy of him. Marie-Josephe believes the Duchess refers to herself, but the reader knows she means Lorraine. It illuminates Monsieur's character, that a woman as strong as his wife, the Duchess of d'Orleans and Princess Palatine, sees him in such a manner.

McIntyre does a crackling good job with Lorraine, who is the closest any character comes to being a villain. He exhibits just the right balance of sensuality, lack of conscience, charm, and cruelty to make him a devilishly effective antagonist, willing to "love" whoever will advance his status, whether it is Marie-Josephe or Monsieur.

The effect McIntyre achieves here is much harder than she makes it look. The story is told through the view of the naïve, convent-raised Marie-Josephe, who has no clue about the relationship between Monsieur and Lorraine. Yet the reader knows right away. The clever unfolding of the triangle involving Marie-Josephe, Lorraine, and Monsieur is blunted a bit because the cast of characters at the start of the book gives away Lorraine's relationship to Monsieur. However, McIntyre writes so well that it doesn't matter.

I should give a spoiler warning here myself: I'm about to reveal the end of the book. Readers who would prefer not to know should skip to the last paragraph of the review.

In her portrayal of the Sun King, McIntyre achieves an complex balance of traits: arrogance, intelligence, conceit, and compassion. At one point he expresses his disappointment that Yves couldn't find him an appropriately beautiful sea monster to look upon, as if nature itself should bend to make his life pleasant. In the end of the book, Yves, Lucien, and Marie-Josephe betray his trust so they can save the life of the sea woman and free her. Yet Louis, in punishing these three people he has loved, also gives each of them something he or she greatly desires. It is a brilliant conclusion, a clever mixing of bitter and sweet that satisfies.

The Moon and the Sun has been called alternate history. Such a history postulates a change in some aspect of our past and then explores its ramifications. Here, it is the existence of the sea people. However, at the end of the book, the Pope orders Yves to search out and destroy all traces in the human record that the sea people exist -- which means the story could be part of our own history. It is a powerful conclusion that leaves the reader questioning what secrets might exist in our real past.

If Louis XIV is the Sun, then Yves is the Moon that reflects his glory. The moon exists whether or not the sun illuminates it, but if it cannot be seen, does it cease to exist in the minds of the people who observe and record history? McIntyre evokes this theme again and again throughout the book, from Yves's position at court to Marie-Josephe's accomplishments. Yet in the end, for all that the Sun King glows even without his moons -- Yves, Marie-Josephe, and Lucien -- it is he who has lost the most.

This book has everything: prose rich in imagery and lyricism, powerful characterization, a plot that sings, enchanting romance, and a depth of insight into human nature. The Moon and the Sun is destined to become a classic.

Copyright © 1999 by Catherine Asaro

Catherine Asaro's next Skolian Empire novel, The Quantum Rose, will be serialized in Analog, starting with the May 1999 issue. The Quantum Rose plus its sequel will come out as one book from Tor, probably in late 2000. The Veiled Web, a near-future suspense novel unconnected to the Skolia books, will come out from Bantam in December 1999. Ascendant Sun, the sequel to The Last Hawk is due out from Tor in March 2000. Her debut novel Primary Inversion is in its second printing, and Catch the Lightning won the1997 Sapphire Award and the UTC Reader's Choice Award for best science fiction novel of 1997. The Radiant Seas just came out in hardcover from Tor, and continues the story of Primary Inversion. The Skolia books are stand alone novels, but take place in the same universe. Catherine is a physicist at Molecudyne Research. She earned her Phd in chemical physics from Harvard and a BS from UCLA. Her husband is John Cannizzo, the proverbial NASA rocket scientist. They have one daughter.

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