Scarlet Moon by Debbie Vigue
Target Audience: YA/Teen
Summary: Ruth's grandmother lives in the forest, banished there for the "evil" that the townsfolk believed she practiced. But if studying the stars, learning about nature, and dreaming of flying is evil, then Ruth is guilty of it too. Whenever Ruth took food and supplies to her grandmother, she would sit with the old woman for hours, listening and learning.
When she wasn't in the woods, Ruth was learning the trade of her father, a blacksmith, now that her brother would never return from the Crusades.
Amidst those dark days, a new man enters Ruth's life. William is a noble with a hot temper and a bad name, and he makes her shiver. But the young man is prey to his heritage, a curse placed on his family ages ago, and each male of the family has strange blood running in his veins. Now Ruth must come face-to-face with his destiny at Grandma's house.
Type of Adaptation: Retelling (I feel like I should call it Historical Recontextualization, because it’s set against the backdrop of the Crusades, but given that the Crusades spanned 200 years, we’re never told which Crusade it is, we’re never given a country in which it takes place, and magic’s a real thing, I decided ‘Retelling’ was the best bet)
So I feel like I ought to start this review with an apology to my friend Drew because when I started reading the Once Upon a Time series back in high school, this was his favorite book of that series, but when I read it, I hated it. That was almost a decade ago, though, so I tried to go into the reread with an open mind, but . . . sorry, Drew. I still hated it. At least now, though, I hope I can be better about articulating why.
And the best way I can think of to do that is to explain that Northanger Abbey is my favorite Jane Austen novel, and then to reassure you that, yes, this has a point. See, Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s most satirical novel, and it spends the majority of its time making fun of Gothic romances and everything they entail. I love this because I hate Gothic romances and the tired and cliche melodrama they’re made up of.
In other words, if Jane Austen was writing today, it would be books like Scarlet Moon that she was making fun of. This book is so over-the-top melodramatic, teen paranormal romance in the worst way. And hey. If that’s your thing, fine. But for me? Let’s just say that forcing myself to finish this novel was a pretty big task. Let’s get right to it, shall we?
So, we start with a girl, Ruth, who is walking through the woods one day as a child when she and her brother are attacked by a giant wolf. Ruth’s brother manages to wound the animal with his dagger and he chases the beast off, then gets Ruth back to the village to be cared for – the wolf’s attack leaves her with huge scars all down her legs, injuries that it takes months to recover from.
The entire village turns out to hunt down the wolf that attacked their children, and they find and kill and huge one, but Ruth examines it, and she knows, it’s not the same wolf (because this, spoiler, is a werewolf story, and apparently when the man in question changes to a werewolf, everything except his eyes transforms, so Ruth knows it’s not the same wolf because it doesn’t have green eyes. Which I find to be stupid, but hey. That might just be me.)
And in typing this review, and being reminded of this point, I’m forced to point out something of a continuity error — we’re told later that there are no longer any natural wolves in the area, because the presence of the werewolf has forced them all away, and the werewolves have been here for generations – so where exactly did this other wolf come from?
Anyway, a few months after the attack, Ruth’s brother and cousin leave for the Crusades, and to prove her strength to her father, Ruth takes up her brother’s work in their father’s blacksmith shop.
Anyway, we flash forward several years, to when Ruth is sixteen, I believe. She is still working as a blacksmith, which I felt could have been a point of interest and used to make important commentary had it been used to inform her character at all or served any point other than being something to Set Her Apart from the townspeople and be the Thing That Her True Love Accepts later on in the story.
Anyway, Ruth’s days are monotonous, filled with working at the smithy and visiting her grandmother in the woods, banished there by the townsfolk who believe her to be a witch, but not strongly enough that they’re going to do what people did in Europe during this time and burn her or anything.
And strange things happen in the woods. There’s that wolf attack that happened when Ruth was a child, and Ruth finds a naked man on the path one day who runs away as she approaches, and the trees talk (maybe? I don’t know. I’ve read this book twice now, and I still can’t figure out if the trees are actually supposed to be talking or if it’s just narrative anthropomorphization to help set mood), but that’s really the most exciting thing that ever happens in her life.
Until her cousin comes back from the Crusades, broken in body and spirit and bearing the awful news that Ruth’s brother was killed.
Peter’s return seems to incite the rest of the action to begin. It is shortly after Peter returns that Ruth meets Lord William for the first time. Ruth is alone in the smithy when the tanner comes to pick up some knives, and he’s trying to get out of paying the bill and being disrespectful to Ruth, and Lord William comes in and goes Lord of the Manor all over his ass, much to Ruth’s embarrassment and indignation.
He’s come in because he needs his horse shoed, and at first, Ruth has no idea who he is, so she berates him for trying to take care of her when she had the situation in hand. William finds this attitude refreshing because of course he does, and then when Ruth finds out who he is, she’s mortified with her behavior, but William expresses the wish that she will always treat him in such a way.
And the whole meeting and the whole conversation is underlined by sexual tension because of course it is. And then we follow William, who returns to his manor and walks broodingly through his portrait gallery and swears that he has to stay away from Ruth because he will not condemn her to a cursed life, an oath that he makes about twenty times over the course of the novel and always breaks because this is that book.
In Gothic romances of the 18th and 19th century, you had the pure, innocent, naive, virginal maiden. And then you had the dark and foreboding man of the world, corrupted by the pleasures of the world, who seeks to lead the maiden into temptation down that dark and sexual path, the man who is a danger to the maiden’s virtue, but keeps returning to her despite knowing he will be her ruin because he just can’t stay away.
This? Reads exactly like that. There’s not the puritanical emphasis on the maiden’s virginity, and the man in question is less corrupt man of the world and more cursed werewolf, but the structure is there and fully in tact. He is a danger to her. He knows he is a danger to her. He states several times that if he truly wanted what was best for her, he would stay away and never speak to her again.
Spoiler: he always speaks to her again.
And like the naive virginal maiden she’s paralleling, Ruth becomes preoccupied with William as well, and he ends up giving her a gift, a silver cross that he urges her to wear for protection. Grandma in the woods is pretty sure that more is going on here than Ruth is aware of, and that William has a dangerous secret he isn’t communicating.
And then the full moon rolls around and horrible things start happening. Namely, the tanner who was so rude to Ruth is found brutally murdered – by a wolf. Ruth knows nothing about William being a werewolf at this point, but William is pretty sure he did it, though he can’t remember anything about his transformation, which is troubling because usually he can. But, he states, since meeting Ruth, his self-control is shot to pieces.
That’s right, folks. He is so overcome by lust for this girl that he’s lost control of the incredibly necessary mind exercises designed to keep him from savagely killing anyone in the three days he spends as a wolf. I feel like this is something he should really focus on fixing, but his attitude toward it seems to be “Well, that’s that. I’m a goner. Nothing to be done.” In fact, his whole attitude toward Ruth is like that.
And he “can’t stay away from her,” which is bullshit. I mean, seriously, dude. I feel like I’m supposed to be sympathetic to this plight in a “true love has a call that cannot be denied” sort of way, but I just think William is a selfish bastard who just got reminded that girls are a thing. Like, seriously, he gives her this cross and then kisses her and then says, “No! You have to stay away from me because I’m dangerous!” and I’m just like, dude. Lock yourself in a room and deal with it. But don’t put that on her when you’re the one who keeps showing up and you’re the only one who fully understands just how dangerous you actually are, you know what I’m saying?
Anyway, during one of those “can’t stay away from her” moments, he ends up at the smithy to sneak a conversation with her, but encounters her father, and is all, hey, I need Ruth to come . . . shoe my 130 horses! Which, I’m sorry, how many horses did you say you just had? Over 100? A small-time country lord? Has over a hundred horses? This does not seem accurate to me. But what do I know, right? I mean, it’s not like I did the research – except, oh wait. Yes I did. (For those who don’t want to wade through the article, it states that the royal household of England in the 1400s had 60 horses for personal use and 180 for carts and chariots. Which, yes, is over 130, but it’s the frickin’ royal household, with a huge and massive court and lots of traffic. Lord William? Lives alone with his servants. Wikipedia and I call bullshit on your 130 horses, Vigue).
Sorry. Tangent done. So, another full moon happens, and Ruth is attacked again by a wolf. And she recognizes the wolf – it’s the same one that attacked her as a child. And when William comes to get her to shoe his 130 horses, she tells him, and he realizes that he attacked her, and he is so overcome with guilt that he confesses everything to her. And Ruth is so angry with him that she almost takes her dagger and kills him, but instead — she kisses him. She kisses him, and then, in a conversation that defies logic, but sadly not my expectations in any way, he tells her again that he’s dangerous and she really ought to stay away from him, but if she won’t do that, would she consider marrying him, maybe?
Because, yeah. That makes sense. Dude, are you even legitimately trying to keep this girl safe anymore, or has your entire world focused down to your need to get laid? Because seriously, what the hell?
Anyway, Ruth accepts him because of course she does, remember, it’s that book, and they have this talk about having died a little every day since they met and nothing, no curse, no murderous actions, can ever come between their love, and are you two forgetting that you’ve met, like, twice, and the first time was less than a week ago. Because I’m not.
Anyway, the scene gets real sexual real fast, until Ruth plays the “I’m a pure virginal maiden and must remain so” card, which will make an appearance basically every time they’re alone together from here til the end of the novel. When they’re apart, however, they each grapple with the decision and almost call off the wedding, and then they see each other again and are so consumed with lust that they just have to go through with it.
Granny posits that there must be a way to break the curse, and Ruth agrees. She says that she will set herself up with William when he transforms next and watch him, to ensure that he doesn’t go kill anyone else. So they chain him up in the manor, and I don’t know why this isn’t a thing that’s done really every month. And Ruth sits in the room with this wolf, trusting that the Power of her Love will keep him sane – which works until she falls asleep and he gets free.
Ruth, you had one job.
And while he’s free, a couple who visited Granny in secret are killed. Ruth finds their mangled bodies and knows she has to find William before the villagers do. She runs to Granny, but instead of getting help there, she finds Peter (you remember Peter? The cousin from the Crusades? Turns out he’s been studying with Granny, hoping that she really is a witch who will teach him Dark magic so he can go get his revenge in the Holy Land, and he’s gone a bit round the bend and thinks he’s a wolf now). With filed teeth and the wolf paw from the wolf that the village killed all those years ago, he’s been committing these murders, and now that Ruth has discovered him trying to kill Granny, he has to kill her.
But before he can, William the Wolf shows up and rips his throat out! Ruth’s hero! In his beast form, he savagely murders people to protect her! That’s the way to a girl’s heart!
Once he’s human again – and through the Power of Love and Plot Convenience can remember everything! – they hide all the bodies and Ruth and William decide to go ahead and get married and just deal with the wolf thing as best they can, and that’s when Granny goes, no just take this here portrait of the guy who got cursed and chuck it in the fire. Curse broken.
Yeah. It’s that simple. And I’m done.
The whole thing is just so melodramatic and so over the top that I was just rolling my eyes constantly.
And the thing is, it’s not that this is a bad book, not really. I mean, it’s got it’s bad moments and the characterization can be lacking and there are some plot issues, but it’s not the kind of bad book that I get great pleasure out of tearing to pieces, as has been true with some titles this year. It’s more that this book is telling a story I have absolutely no interest in, and have never had an interest in.
I don’t do teen paranormal romance. I just don’t enjoy it. It’s the Gothic Romance genre of the 18th century updated for today’s generation, and I just don’t understand the appeal. I don’t get why so many readers these days get so obsessed over stories that paint the ideal romance as one that is forbidden and dangerous. The innocent maiden who knowingly and willingly puts her life and her virtue in the hands of a man who could literally kill her. It’s tired, and cliche, and it was tired and cliche before Twilight got ahold of it. It’s Wuthering Heights and The Mysteries of Udolpho all over again, just with werewolves and vampires in place of angsty philanderers, and I’m sorry, but that’s not a story that interests me.
And I’m not saying that this highly sexualized version of events isn’t a perfectly valid interpretation of the Little Red Riding Hood story – it totally is, given the origins of this fairy tale. It’s just not an interpretation I have any intention of rereading ever again.
But let’s plug it into the checklist.
Make Little Red less of an idiot? Well, she’s certainly not an idiot in the same way as LRRH’s main character. She’s not “dumb and unobservant as a box of rocks” idiotic. But I would argue that she’s still pretty idiotic, willingly letting this man be a part of her life even knowing what he’s done to her in the past. So, half a point.
Develop the world? Yeah, this is where Vigue loses me. What the hell is going on with your world? What country are we in? Which Crusade is being fought? What’s our time period? And most importantly, what the heck is going on with your magical parameters? Okay, witches and werewolves are a thing, I get that, but Granny? Is she a witch? And what’s going on with the trees? I just felt lost, like the characters knew things about their world that they weren’t sharing with me, and it got annoying. No point.
Give me a point? Yeah, okay. I didn’t much care for it, but I guess it was there. So I’ll give you this one.