This YA graphic novel is very sweet and perfect for fall. I’m not sure that much about it will stay with me, but it was a good use of a leisurely autumn lunch break.
Mooncakes tells the story of Nova, a teen witch, and her childhood friend Tam, a werewolf, who is back in town after a several-year absence. Tam is trying to defeat a local demon who has possessed a horse (unlike most of the rest of this book, the six-legged demon horse is truly nightmare fuel). Nova finds Tam, and Nova and her family take Tam in to help them harness their wolf powers and defeat the demon.
Mooncakes gets a giant thumbs up from me for atmosphere. Everything about this book screams COZY FALL: witchcraft, a magic-filled bookstore, benevolent ghosts, the mid-autumn festival (hence the titular mooncakes), Halloween decorations, adorable and Very Good black cats, and vivid outdoor scenes—Mooncakes basically fills up a “fall trope” bingo board all by itself!
The colors of this graphic novel are gorgeous. It is clear that a lot of care went into developing the palette, which manages to be both consistent and to transmit the mood of each scene perfectly. I could practically feel the chill, clear fall air and dreamy moonlight of autumn looking at the landscape scenes. I’m not sure if the book is expressly set in New England, but boy-o did it make me miss New England falls!!
In addition to giving me all of those pumpkin spice feels, another thing I enjoyed about this graphic novel is its matter-of-course approach to diversity. Nova and Tam are both Chinese-American, Nova’s maternal grandmothers (one Jewish and one Chinese) are in a loving queer domestic partnership, Nova wears hearing aids, and Tam is nonbinary and uses they-them pronouns. All of these facets of identity are presented as integral parts of the characters, but not as anything that needs to be explained or justified to the reader.
That doesn’t mean there’s never any identity-related friction. For example, Nova expresses some frustration that others are insensitive about her hearing, and Tam does have to correct one of the Nanas initially about using the correct pronouns for them. But identity is not really a source of conflict.
Given how few nonbinary characters there are in media in general, and especially in media aimed at younger readers, Tam was a particularly refreshing character for me. Tam’s gender is treated the same as their were-wolfiness (is that a word?); it just is, and to question it would be to deny a visceral reality. There’s no struggling with or questioning gender identity. (Not that there’s not a place for those narratives. There absolutely is, but it’s nice to have a nonbinary character who can be pretty much only concerned with non-gender related things, like harnessing wolf magic and defeating demon horses).
Besides these two (admittedly big) strengths, Mooncakes’ characters and plot did not otherwise inspire strong feelings in me. This may be partly because this book is clearly aimed at a teen audience, and I would say a below-16 audience. That does not mean adults won’t enjoy it, but a lot of the major elements of the book, like the interpersonal relationships and conflicts, lack a little bit of meat.
The relationships in this book are fairly one-note. Because that one note is “sweet and supportive,” I still enjoyed them, but they weren’t especially compelling. There is very little conflict between the major characters. There’s not even the kind of conflict that occurs when you love someone and are concerned that their behavior is reckless/bone-headed/careless/etc. And since various characters seem to be withholding information and/or engaging in what seems to be wildly dangerous magical shenanigans throughout the book, this was a little strange. Because the overriding relationship paradigm seems to be enveloping each other in fluffy clouds of unconditional support and love, no one seems to particularly accountable to anyone else for their actions. This prevented me from feeling fully grounded in the characters.
For example, the Grandmas suss out (and say to each other) very early on that they believe Tam is keeping some secrets from them about the demon horse of nightmares, but their reaction is pretty much “I guess they’ll tell us when they’re ready?” Given that there is Evil Afoot and Tam is clearly romantically involved with Nova, this level of nonchalance about something that could theoretically really hurt Nova strained credulity.
The lack of depth extends to the romance between Nova and Tam. Again, it was charming and adorable, but there was little-to-no buildup. We just know they were friends, Tam comes back, and BAM! insta-relationship. The romance is not a source of any conflict (or even suspense) at all.
Nova and Tam are both dynamic in that they do grow and change. Nova needs to feel comfortable expanding her horizons beyond her familiar, safe home, and Tam needs to feel like they can return to the home they have abandoned. But it doesn’t feel like they grow and change together. I don’t think the overall story or character arcs would feel any different if they had just remained close friends, which to me is a sure sign that the romance was underdeveloped.
The conflicts were similarly loosely rendered. Good and evil are entirely one-dimensional, and the primary conflict surrounding the defeat of the demon horse can be boiled down to “good witches vs. bad witches.” The motivations of the primary antagonists were not clear other than a generalized desire to do evil. By the time I reached the climax, I didn’t really care that much because the stakes had become so broad that they did not feel real. I was definitely reading for the WITCHY FALL VIBES and not because I was invested in the defeat of the antagonists.
The most interesting conflict in the book by far is between Nova and her parents, who, though dead, can come back to visit as ghosts. They have thoughts about the direction of Nova’s life as a witch and what steps she should be taking to become an adult. It is clear that they are motivated by love and concern, but this does not lessen or erase Nova’s hurt and confusion. This argument felt real and intense in a way most of the rest of the book did not. Unfortunately, it was maybe 5% of the entire book. I would have liked to see more complicated interpersonal dynamics like this one throughout Mooncakes.
As is probably clear from this review, this book shines not in its broad architecture, which is a mite flimsy, but in its small moments. While I was not mesmerized by the plot, I kept finding myself legitimately delighted and smiling at a magical panel or an absurd pun. (Side note: if you like puns, you will not be dissatisfied with the quality Pun Content in this book).
While I don’t think I’ll be ruminating overmuch on this graphic novel, with its autumnal aura and an approach to representation that feels almost effortless, I was momentarily enchanted by Mooncakes. My recommendation: buy it for the tween/early-teen reader in your life…and then borrow it from them!