The notion of ‘balance’ underlies aspects of all the natural sciences: One of the first things a student of physics learns is that for every action there is a reaction. Biology teaches that nature is maintained in a constant state of balance; and the many hours spent balancing out chemical equations have become an abiding memory of high school chemistry classes.
In The Moon King, Neil Williamson takes the notion of natural balance to an extreme. His debut novel is set in the fictional island city of Glassholm, founded over half a century ago by an ancient and technologically advanced people, where every aspect of life, including peoples’ moods; the life-time of consumables; and even entropy and the longevity of manufactured goods fluctuate unendingly with the phases of the moon. On the wax, everything looks up: People are happy, society lives in harmony and everything is ‘as good as it could be’, culminating in the mass euphoria of ‘full day’ when the moon shines out in all its glory. Conversely on the wane, the mood turns sullen. Crime becomes widespread and tempers fray, and on ‘dark day’ – the night of the new moon – the city is overcome with mass depression, filth and decay.
Presiding over it all is the ‘Lunane’, the city’s deified five-hundred-year-old forefather and leader, who in the beginning saved his civilisation from extinction on the open seas by capturing the moon to be theirs as a constant symbol of hope, shining above their city alone. At the time the novel is set, this once advanced civilisation has fallen into decay, subsisting only from moon-cycle to moon-cycle in a constant bipolar routine of evolutional apathy.
Williamson reveals his narrative through three main characters who are distinctly set apart from the rest of the generally apathetic society: Anton, a strong-minded engineer who is the only one in his entire faculty to want to think outside the box; Lottie, a young artist whose interesting past has made it her ambition to be different; and Mortlock, who we meet as a palace guard without a memory, unsure of exactly who he is or was, but with nagging feelings that dimly suggest at both. As the reader is drawn into the story, it becomes clear that all three protagonists are caught up in the centre of a strange mood reverberating throughout Glassholm. For the first time in 500 years things are starting to change: murders while the moon is full; previously unheard-of civil unrest; even a loss of faith in the Lunane himself. And no-one knows why.
Throughout the novel, readers may finds themselves in a slight state of insecurity and uncertainty, mirroring both the emotions of the principle characters and the occurrences in Glassholm society at large. Williamson is very clever in his application of this, leaving his readers with no bigger picture to rely on as we learn what’s going on at the same pace as the characters do – through the distinctive threads of their stories as narrated in real time. This is at the same time very engaging, drawing you into the story through distinct yet related perspectives, and slightly exasperating as you just want to know what’s actually going on.
The two main themes in the novel are the notion of balance, the natural swing of one cycle to the next and the expected routine that accompanies it, versus that of change, centring around the debates of whether progress is a good thing, and if our past and the people and conventions surrounding us can dictate who we are.
In developing these themes, The Moon King has you hooked from the start. With its grisly details and thrilleresque side narratives it is not the fairy-tale fiction the title may lead one to expect, but once you are drawn into the world Williamson has created you really want to find out what makes it tick.