Judging a book by its cover is a sometimes fraught process, given that often the author and artist are not on the same, er, page. But then there are those covers that are not only gorgeous to look at, but perfectly communicate what the books they are enveloping are trying to do.
A look at the cover of Jasmine Gower’s debut fantasy Moonshine makes certain promises promises: theArt Deco font that creams the 1920’s. The central figure in flapper garb, flanked by faeries (this is presumably our protagonist, Daisy Dell). The cityscape glimpsed behind her. The background details: she’s dancing over a piece of jewelry and is flanked by what appear to be two stoppered perfume bottles . Here is a book promising magic and glamour in a glittering city awash in the din of the Roaring Twenties.
Moonshine, it turns out, is actually set in a secondary world, though this fantasy city is very much like Chicago in the 1920’s. It’s called Soot City. And at first glance, it feels like a very familiar sort of alternate world. The style of buildings, the layout of the blocks, the feel of the place as invoked in the story—it feels like a period American city on the make, full of people who are trying to go places. There are cars, radios, factories, and all the comforts of our own world. People work in offices, drink in bars, and go dancing. And yes, there are firearms—Eliot Ness and Al Capone would be right at home in Soot City. Daisy Dell herself lives the 1920s aesthetic too—she calls herself a “Modern Girl” and adheres to a self-imposed sense of career-woman ideals straight out of the Modern Girl movement of 1920s Japan.
And yet, for all that familiarity, Soot City is a very different sort of city. Ashland, the country in which Soot City is located, is a relatively virgin land, a nation of immigrants—but it is definitely not the United States. Ashland is a continent recovering in the wake of violent volcanic eruptions that ravaged the land but have since diminished, providing opportunities for people from around the world. And the population is more than merely human—there are supernatural beings: faeries, fauns, doppelgängers, and ogres (the latter appearing to be more of the Japanese ilk than the Dungeons and Dragons variety, mechanically inclined and the source of many of the recent advances in technology, including those radios and automobiles).
Along with those supernatural beings comes the crux of the story and the conflict—in our world in the 1920’s, the Volstead Act (commonly known as Prohibition) made buying and selling alcohol illegal in the U.S. In the world of Moonshine, a similar prohibition has made forbidden Mana, an addictive blue fluid used by magicians to augment their power. The practice of magic is not technically illegal (just as drinking alcohol was not outlawed during Prohibition) but possession and use of mana most definitely is. Those bottles on the cover are bottles of mana. Daisy is dancing above them, which means it is reasonable to assume she practices magic of some sort. (That assumption would be correct.)
Daisy practices her craft in secret, and it is a subset of magic that is hardly well known at that. When her illicit habits are discovered by the company she works for, and she in turn discovers said company secretly manufactures and sells mana, you’ve cranked the engine on a crackerjack plot. Daisy, Modern Girl as she is, now has to make her way in a world suddenly more fraught and infinitely more complicated for those two revelations. The book lives, and thrives, on the plight that Daisy and her co-workers are thrust into, playing off of their personalities, backgrounds, and very different natures to drive conflict and character growth. When that is not enough, there are also gun battles, magical evocations, passage through gates to another world, and plenty more action to keep the plot humming like a Chrysler B-70.
Like the best period novels, Moonshine exceeds above and beyond its worldbuilding and general milieu through characters who are intensely interesting and excellently drawn. Nothing is what it seems on the surface: Daisy is caught between her past and history—a grandmother’s legacy of magic and her desire to be the agent of her own destiny. Stripes Management, the company she works for, operates a false outer shell, to cover a secret trade in mana. Swarz, the head of both the shell company and the real one, struggles to keep both companies afloat and the law off of his back. His employees—Daisy’s coworkers—are a varied lot, each with their own motivations and personalities, a family of employees with myriad conflicts and alliances. Even the delightful antagonist Ming has a well defined inner life, with goals and desires that makes her interestingly complicated. The cast is drawn from diverse backgrounds, with people of all stripes (pun intended) in terms of gender and sexuality in a way that provides both wide representation and various points of connection for readers.
With language that is beautifully flowing and evocative, whether describing the events of Ming’s days or Daisy’s struggle through trials and tribulations, Moonshine is a delight to fall into, a sensual and immersive dive into a protagonist’s life and the familiar, yet alien world that she inhabits.