Moth and Spark, Anne Leonard’s debut novel, is a member of a very specific and well-populated fantasy subgenre: a classic tale of high romance, sword fighting, dragon-riding, and faux-medieval politicking. It’s more or less the Anne McCaffrey and Patricia Briggs reading of my middle school years, read and re-read with all the critical discernment of a kid shoving cotton candy down her throat at the fair. Moth and Spark was cotton candy of the most typical sort — nothing but air and spun sugar, but still a sweet way to pass the time.
The plot is an old friend to romance and fantasy readers. Corin is the prince of a small but plucky kingdom ruled by a dangerous high king (are high kings ever okay dudes? Or exclusively power-crazed lunatics?). While war brews with a convenient barbarian nation, Corin falls in love with a pretty and smart commoner named Tam. They make out in various Renaissance Fair settings (in castle corridors, in carriages, at a masque), and then war happens and really bums everyone out. Meanwhile, Corin has discovered an alarming connection with the high king’s dragons, and Tam has started having eerie visions of cold, dark places.
That undefined sense of dread — the dark sense of something threatening moving beneath the Jane Austen-y façade of the castle — is the strongest part of the book. (Well, that, and the title. How easy would it have been to stick the word “dragon” in the title and render it instantly cliché?) The building sense of the occult contains some lovely imagery and atmospheric manipulation: there were moths and sparks in Tam’s dreams, and dragons half-seen in mirrors. It all alluded to a climatic conclusion, and made me care a little more about Tam and Corin’s fates.
Which wasn’t always easy. Tam and Corin’s romance was one of the least compelling aspects of the book. I want to be clear, first, that I don’t make the mistake of thinking that romance is a trivializing force in fiction. If we believe Faulkner’s quotable truism that “the human heart in conflict with itself” is the only thing worth writing about — then what could possibly generate more conflict and tangled needing and hilarity than romance? But Tam and Corin lacked that one detail that makes romances so real and compelling: flaws. Both of them are wealthy, smart, loyal, and out-of-control attractive. They’re perfect.
But — having myself fallen in love in the kind of all-consuming, fireworks-show way that will make me seem smug and annoying to single persons forevermore — I’m not sure that love is about perfection. It seems much more about the fitting together of flaws into a kind of divine symmetry. Why are we rooting so hard for Cazaril and Beatriz in The Curse of Chalion (possibly my favorite fantasy romance ever)? Because Caz is old and scarred and afraid, and Beatriz is naïve and foolhardy. They’re flawed. In a pinch, extraordinarily difficult circumstances can substitute for flawed characters — as in Henry and Clare in The Time Traveler’s Wife, or those poor kids from two households, both alike in dignity. But Tam and Corin’s Big Obstacle (the inability of commoners and princes to get married) is overcome more or less exactly like it was in Aladdin, except even earlier in the story.
In the vacuum created by two Barbie-doll protagonists, side characters come in to pick up the slack. Corin’s father, the king, manages to exert an impressive amount of influence through comparatively few lines. Joce the wizard and Kelvan the dragon-rider also offer tantalizing glimpses of an alternate story. Part of me wishes that Kelvan had just been given the narrative reins — the loyal dragon-rider forced to turn against the high king in order to free the dragons? I’d read that book.
But in the (predictably happy) end, Moth and Spark is just a fun love story with dragons. When that genre is elevated to a high art, you get books like Patricia Briggs’s Dragon Bones, which is so compelling and character-driven that I’ll reread it forever just to hang out with Ward and Oreg. Moth and Spark lacks that kind of empathy and depth, but it’s still perfectly acceptable cotton candy. For the non-discerning fair-goer.
This review was originally published at Fantasy Literature.