Mafia Families on the Moon: Ian McDonald – Luna: New Moon

Here we have another book that, although I was interested, I probably wouldn’t have picked up if the trilogy weren’t nominated for a Best Series Hugo Award this year. I have nothing against hard sci-fi but I am a character reader and characters tend to draw the short straw in many hard sci-fi novels. This trilogy starter was actually really good, but it didn’t exactly change my mind on the subgenre and its pros and cons.

LUNA: New Moon
By Ian McDonald

Published: Tor, 2015
eBook: 432 pages
Series: Luna #1
My rating: 6.75/10

Opening line: In a white room on the edge of the Sinus Medii sit six naked teenagers. 

The Moon wants to kill you.
Maybe it will kill you when the per diem for your allotted food, water, and air runs out, just before you hit paydirt. Maybe it will kill you when you are trapped between the reigning corporations – the Five Dragons – in a foolish gamble against a futuristic feudal society. On the Moon, you must fight for every inch you want to gain. And that is just what Adriana Corta did.
As the leader of the Moon’s newest “dragon,” Adriana has wrested control of the Moon’s Helium-3 industry from the Mackenzie Metal corporation and fought to earn her family’s new status. Now, in the twilight of her life, Adriana finds her corporation-Corta Helio-confronted by the many enemies she made during her meteoric rise. If the Corta family is to survive, Adriana’s five children must defend their mother’s empire from her many enemies… and each other.

This is the story of the Cortas, a successful almost mafia-like family whose matriarch Adriana has established a name for herself on the moon by selling helium-3. Adriana came from Brazil, from nothing, and built an entire dynasty in one of the most inhospitable places a human could live. The environment wants to kill you, air has to be paid for, there is no criminal law, only contracts. And when you’re as rich and famous as the Cortas, assassins never stray too far…

I was hooked pretty quickly when I started reading this book because who doesn’t like a good mafia story? And this is essential a mafia story set on the moon. The moon may not be far away but it feels like a completely different world when you imagine living on it. The world building was well done and I got more and more of a sense of what it’s like to live on the moon, especially through the point of view of Marina. She isn’t part of the Dragon families and, in fact, starts out as a Jo Moonbeam (a newcomer to the moon) living in poverty.
While this first impression of life on the moon got me interested, I wanted a little more detail when it came to the world building. So many cool things are mentioned that I wanted to learn more of. Since this is only the start of a trilogy, I’m being lenient and hope to find out more in the sequels.

The most important part of a novel for me is always the characters. And there are plenty to choose from here. I honestly don’t remember how everyone is related to each other but I at least managed to keep the many, many Cortas separated in my head by age groups. Adriana Corta started it all, then come her sons and daughter who will inherit Corta Hélio, and then there are their children. Plus wives, madrinhas (more on that later), servants, bodyguards, and trusted advisors. I went into this expecting to be confused because the book starts with a long list of character names. However, I think any novel should establish the characters in such a way that no lists are needed, that the reader learns through context who is who and how they relate to each other. McDonald did an okay job with this. It’s all a bit much at first but the more we follow single characters and their story lines, the clearer it becomes who they are and what their role is in the family.

The plot was sadly a bit disappointing. It starts off with a bang. Several bangs, actually. We begin with Lucasinho (one of the younger Cortas) on his moon-run. I’m not spoiling that particular crazy tradition for you, but it had me on the edge of my seat for the entire first chapter. And then there’s an assassination attempt on one of the Cortas. Talk about a great start!
Except after that, the plot starts meandering, never really  finding its footing. We follow the different Cortas doing their daily business and as they try to further their dynasty and prepare for a time when Adriana Corta will retire and hand off the company to one of her heirs. But I never got the sense of following a red thread, of having anything to hold on to. It’s all snippets and glimpses and the POV changes happen so quickly that it was hard to fully immerse myself in any one character’s story. I never really built an emotional connection to them. I found them intriguing, certainly, and I enjoyed following their lives, but they always stayed at a distance. My heart just wasn’t in it, so I also didn’t much care about their love stories, character deaths or their business successes and failures. I felt like a scientist watching these people in a lab and nodding with interest, not like someone living these stories alongside them.

I didn’t expect it but the language was quite challenging. With the Cortas originally coming from Brazil, there are many uses of Brazilian Portuguese words – or more specifically, Brazilian Portuguese words influenced by a life on the moon – that are easy enough to understand through context but made reading this book a bit harder nonetheless. Add to that all the cool tech our moon-dwellers use, the many concepts that are second nature to them but are new and strange to us Earth people, and you’ve got a book that takes a while to get through. Take for instance the madrinhas. With some knowledge of Romance languages, I kept thinking “little mother?” whenever I came across the word, and it’s not that far from what it means in this book. Madrinhas are surrogate mothers who carry the Corta’s children – but children created of the sperm and egg cells of actual Cortas and whoever they chose to marry. These surrogate mothers don’t just carry the baby, however, they also raise it for a while and become part of the larger family, which was a really interesting concept. Not one I necessarily understand or find particularly appealing to hand off childrearing because you’re too busy but still want a legacy, but… you know, interesting.

Another language thing I noticed was that McDonald seems extraordinarily in love with the pronoun game. A large number of chapters and POV changes start with lines like “Carlinho took her by the arm and led her to the other room […]” or “He walked down the steps in this secret passageway” with several paragraphs of not specifying who “she” or “he” is. This device can be used to create suspense, to make a surprising twist more shocking, or even just for fun on occasion. But in Luna it’s done so often and never for any point I could surmise that it got annoying rather quickly. It’s not like there aren’t enough names and relations to keep in mind already. At least tell me the name of the person I’m going to follow in this chapter!
I also found the descriptions of sex in this book a bit strange. There is plenty of it and while I loved that the people on the moon don’t give one single fuck about who sleeps with whom, the actual descriptions of sex made me cringe. I’m currently listening to The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson which also has a lot of graphic sex in it so I can’t help but compare (unfair as that may be). And while in Hopkinson’s book even very detailed descriptions feel natural and honest, in Luna they felt like the author was just trying to be edgy. Don’t misunderstand me, the scenes weren’t bad, I just didn’t really understand the purpose of the detail in regards to this tale.

My favorite part, probably because it tells an actual story, was the first person narration of Adriana Corta which intersplices all the other characters’ stories. She tells her entire life story; how she lived in Brazil, went to the moon, had one crazy idea and built one of the biggest companies there. There was also friendship and love in that life and although I also didn’t connect very much with Adriana on an emotional level, I was excited to read about her. Her chapters were the ones where I didn’t want to put the book down.
Until the ending. Remember how there isn’t really any straightforward plot? Well, there really isn’t but somehow at the end, everything happens at once. I have to be vague so I don’t spoil things for you but let’s say that the incredibly exciting events of the last chapter should have been built up better. It all makes sense once it’s explained but it felt a bit out of left field. At least drop a clue here or there so the readers can go “ooooh, I should have seen that coming” at the end. Okay, that’s about all I can say without telling you what happens. I will add that this ending was brilliant and showed me that I cared at least about some of the characters more than I had thought. I am in no rush to continue the trilogy (even though the next book is set up and will probably be great) but I’m glad I read this.

MY RATING: 6.75/10 – Pretty good