BSFA Shortlist Review: The Moon King by Neil Williamson

TheMoonKingThe Moon King by Neil Williamson

Setting: An island bound to the cycles of the moon.

Summary: Glassholm’s first king captured the moon and tethered it to the island city. For five hundred years, the moon’s presence has influenced the mood of the people, who experience dramatic swings in temperament over the course of each month. But crime during the Dark days has become more heinous, and now leaks into the Fullish days. No one feels safe anymore.

Synopsis quote:

The earth moved around the sun, the moon moved around Glassholm. After that it was all a matter of shadows. [Loc. 1520]

The blurb that was never blurbed:

Gives new meaning to the phrase “that time of the month.”

How it feels: Fleeting moments of glittery fish scales and pearlescent moondrops are juxtaposed with a smoky crime story aesthetic. However, strained dialogue and strained motivations overshadow the intriguing, albeit flimsy, setting and premise. Many scenes feel blocked, as if in a play, as if the author is shouting, “Places, people!” An imaginative effort by a first-time novelist who is unpracticed in long fiction transitions.

The message: Loaded with positive, superficial messages about bipolar disorder and atonement. Ultimately about the importance of being different. Might also serve as a political allegory about the power of our leaders to make our lives miserable, and the passive compliance of citizens to allow misery to continue.

Celebrity blurbers: Jeff VanderMeer and Nina Allan have both praised this novel.

My response: Did we read the same book?

Should you read this? Passive readers looking for a unique secondary world setting might enjoy this. Critical readers might not buy the initial premise or the general passivity of the citizenry. (British colonists rioted over taxes; I should think state-induced suicidal depression might warrant regicide after the first month of lunar-entrapment.)

Ultimately: In general, reader feedback is split, most reviews are very positive, but this was my least favorite of the BSFA shortlist.

Publishing observation: The ebook version is loaded, LOADED, with typographical and grammatical errors, which, for this reader from a bilingual household, is not terribly important. (In my house, words make themselves!) More distracting is the urge to rewrite entire sentences to make them less explanatory, and more alluring.


This is part of an 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

Previous BFSA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan
Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge

Next week’s BFSA Shortlist Reviews:
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Wolves by Simon Ings


21 thoughts on “BSFA Shortlist Review: The Moon King by Neil Williamson

  1. Still laughing about the blurb that was not blurbed. What is the second language in your house?


  2. PS I am really enjoying knowing that there will be a post from you every day. So here here on that. Someone should pay you to quit your job and writing book reviews all the livelong day.


    • AND THERE’S THE NEXT TYPO. Don’t tell anyone I work in publishing.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      *blushing* Gee, thanks. I can barely write one or two book reviews per week. It’s not so much time, but I just get tapped out. I don’t know how full-time writers do it. I need a job to break up my day, lol.

      You’re a full-time writer, right? But I get the impression you do lots of different stuff.


      • Haha, I can hear you on being taped out. I am a full-time writer but also an editor, and lately I have been doing more editing than writing, so that breaks it up. Writing def isn’t something I can do for eight hours straight, though like you said having very different things to write (style or topic or whatever) does make it easier to sustain for longer periods of time. I can generally do 4-5 hours of productive writing in a day and then nothing of worth comes out of me anymore, so yeah I hear needing something to break it up. After that my brain just shuts off the part that does writing. Actually I find reading helps me. I think I was saying this on Books Brains and not here, but I need to read a ton ie have masses of input in order to sustain an output. Seems to be a fuel-product relationship.


  3. Jesse says:

    You made somewhat similar comments about Bennett’s City of Stairs, i.e. nice setting, thin story. Are they similar books? Would you favor one over the other?

    I also live in a bilingual household. My favorite neologism thus far is ‘shrinkle.’ Combining ‘wrinkle’ and ‘shrink’, it seems to capture old age lines and wet laundry much better than either word alone.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      The two books were similar disappointments, but entirely different experiences. With Bennett, there are no legit technical issues. He does it all right… a little too right… he reeks of mainstream formula, as if he based it on a plot chart he got out of a vending machine. It was all very predictable to me, not just plot, but my own emotions during the book felt manipulated, rather than an organic response to the tale. I wasn’t impressed with his archetypal characters.

      But I wouldn’t say Bennett is a bad writer. He isn’t expository, but I think he killed some of his best moments by foreshadowing them too bluntly. He follows the rules a little too closely, perhaps?

      I think I am more disappointed by The Moon King because it sounds so promising. I know he’s a published short story writer, but I have never had such an urge to rewrite a novel for someone. If it had been a paperback, I seriously would have rewritten sentences in the margins. I couldn’t help wishing that those celebrity blurbers had written it for him.

      Thinking on it afterward, I wondered if the awkwardness came from the employment of crime tropes juxtaposed with such a guilded aesthetic. But no, the aesthetics are mostly fleeting, they don’t permeate the novel as they should, and the crime stuff is more TV cliche than trope. I read a review on Goodreads that suggested that Williamson worked on this novel for years… and crammed every thought he had about it into the novel, whether it fit or not. It also smacked as a product of creative writing class feedback, hence the over-explained elements: “Oh, we need to go over here.” “Why are we going there?” “Because this and this and this, so let’s go.”

      (If your characters have to explain why they are going somewhere, then they shouldn’t be going there.)

      Ultimately, City of Stairs is well-written grocery store fantasy. The Moon King is a practice effort by a new novelist. I wouldn’t have published it in this condition. But people I respect love it, so I feel like an idiot saying so.


      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        As for bilingual fumbles, “ess-snoog-lay” is “snuggle.” It’s been 12 years, and I still don’t know how to say “snuggle” in Spanish. I haven’t bothered to look it up, and he won’t tell me.

        For his part, his most famous English neologism is “Pass the Eggs Day,” because “Passover” and “Easter” are idiomatic conundrums for him. It was coined a few years ago and it remains in use today.

        He’s also been doing the nongendered pronoun thing long before Ancillary Justice came around. ‘He/his’ and ‘she/her’ and ‘it’ get confused all the time, which surprised me, considering Spanish is such a gendered language. But in Spanish, once the gender of the subject is established, they default to ‘it’ or just leave it off. So I hear a lot of, “Your sister left his coat behind,” style expressions.

        Love shrinkle!


        • Shrinkle! Ha. I love it too.

          The awesome thing about German (which is our main language at home) is that you can paste words together willy nilly and they then become LEGITIMATE WORDS. When I first started learning it I always wondered why so many words I read werent in the damn dictionary. Anyway, so that leads to a lot of made up words. The longer the better. Dont think we’ve made any English combos up yet though.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Widdershins says:

    I’m always suspicious of books that generate the urge to rewrite!


  5. […] Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson The Race by Nina Allan Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge The Moon King by Neil […]


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  7. […] Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson The Race by Nina Allan Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge The Moon King by Neil Williamson Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor Ancillary Sword by Ann […]


  8. […] Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson The Race by Nina Allan Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge The Moon King by Neil Williamson Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie The First Fifteen […]


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