Vonda N. McIntyre’s Nebula-winning 1997 The Moon and the Sun is a stand-alone historical speculative fiction novel. It was McIntyre’s final novel.
Despite having been educated in isolated, cloistered St. Cyr by unworldly nuns, Marie-Josèphe de la Croix is surprisingly naïve. Summoned to be lady-in-waiting to Louis XIV’s niece, Elisabeth Charlotte d’Orléans, Marie-Josèphe is quite unprepared for the Versailles court in which she now must live.
Her scientific interests will only complicate matters.
Marie-Josèphe’s older brother, Jesuit and natural philosopher Father Yves de la Croix, returns to Versailles in triumph, having managed what no natural philosopher before him had ever managed. Father de Croix has captured a pair of merfolk. Even better, one of the prisoners has survived the voyage to France.
These merfolk are not the beauties of myth; they are ferocious-looking monsters. Their appearance is just the thing to assuage any pangs of conscience the Father might have concerning his future plans. The dead male will be dissected to further natural philosophy. The female, on the other hand, will, when the time is right, be butchered and fed to the king. Will mermaid flesh confer immortality, as legend says it can?
The one lovely aspect of the surviving monster is its song-like voice. It falls to Marie-Josèphe to realize the song is language, to grasp its meaning, and to converse with the mermaid. She has a name — Sherzad — and she is a person. Therefore, the upcoming mermaid feast will begin with a murder.
Marie-Josèphe is determined to save Sherzad. However, the king would very much like to live forever; the court (for the most part) wants to keep Louis XIV happy. Whatever promises the king might make — such as promising mercy if Sherzad tells him where to find some sunken treasure — he won’t keep them if he thinks her flesh will give him eternal life.
The only way out that Marie-Josèphe can see is to betray the king and free Sherzad.
What didn’t work for me: a bit of world-building detail. Foreign luminaries visiting Louis XIV’s court include the war chiefs of the Huron, the shah of Persia, the queen of Nubia, and a princely representative of Emperor Higashiyama. While Louis XIV’s court was quite energetic when it came to diplomatic outreach, would so many heads of state have made the trip to France? And was Edo period Japan sending out any diplomatic representatives to Europe?
Merfolk are a recurring element in McIntyre’s fiction. This particular variation is a sea-adapted mammal. The ancestors were land-dwellers, as is clear when one looks at their flukes: they are clearly derived from legs. The merfolk have an oral history that goes back millennia, which, while fascinating from a historical perspective, doesn’t help them co-exist with humans. Diplomatic relations with land-walkers peaked before the fall of Atlantis and it has all been downhill from there.
The Moon and the Sun won a Nebula in 1998, beating out A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, Ancient Shores by Jack McDevitt, Bellwether by Connie Willis, City on Fire by Walter Jon Williams, King’s Dragon by Kate Elliott, Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold. Having read all but the Elliott, I am not sure why SFWA picked The Moon and the Sun for the award. It is a fine book, but then most of those books are good reads. Indeed, it seems odd that A Game of Thrones wasn’t picked; it was perhaps the most popular book on that finalist list. Although maybe that came later.
I can see parallels between the Martin and the McIntyre. Both books feature a naïve outsider dealing with cutthroat court politics and a supporting character of diminutive stature1. However, the McIntyre has a conclusion and the Martin quite notably does not.
McIntyre’s prose is polished. The novel is … perfectly functional, hitting the notes one would expect from the premise of a naïve but kind-hearted woman confronted with great injustice. It’s too bad that the work does not go beyond that. Once the reader understands the situation and has met the cast of characters, they will be able to make an educated guess as to how it all will work out. If The Moon and the Sun sounds like the sort of book you might like, then it will be just what you want. No surprises.
The Moon and the Sun is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), and here (Book Depository). Renamed The King’s Daughter, and with a still from the movie as the cover, The Moon and the Sun is available here (Barnes & Noble) and here (Chapters-Indigo).
1: Both The Moon and the Sun and A Game of Thrones were optioned for adaptation. On the whole, AGoT seems to have had a better time of it. The King’s Daughter, as the film version of The Moon and the Sun was titled, languished on a shelf since the 2010s, only recently seeing release. Reviews have not been kind. Mind you, reviews of the last season of AGOT were also unfavourable, but the fact HBO was sending dump-trucks full of hundred-dollar bills to Martin’s home must have taken some of the sting out of the reviews.