Sunlight and Shadow is another fairytale retelling by Cameron Dokey. I think this is bordering on obsession for me! This one is a version of “The Magic Flute” which is a story I wasn’t familiar with. It’s essentially an origin story of how the Sun and Moon came to share precedence in the world, with a subplot explaining how mourning doves came to be.
Mina is the daughter of the Sun (Lord Sarastro) and the Moon (Lady Pamina) who, though connected, are constantly in conflict with one another. She grows up with her mother, knowing almost nothing about her father. On her 16th birthday she’s supposed to go to her father who will marry her to a man of his choosing. Doubting that Lady Pamina will live up to her part of the bargain, Lord Sarastro arrives early and kidnaps Mina, thus earning her disdain and disobedience.
The story is told in first person, directly to the reader, and it’s often insightful and humorous. However, the narrator changes several times, so you get various points of view. This might sound confusing, but the voices are individual enough and the clues are clear enough that you won’t be lost for more than a few sentences. Be sure to read the chapter titles! They matter, they’re often funny, and they also help you figure out more quickly who the narrator is.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Love and Romance
Complicated romantic relationships are the core of the story. Mina’s parents need to learn how to share and trust to make their marriage work. Lord Sarastro wants to marry Mina off to Statos, his second in command. Gayna, Sarastro’s adopted daughter, is in love with Statos. Statos thinks he loves Mina, but it’s mostly about fulfilling Sarastro’s expectations of him. Lapin, who has been Mina’s best friend from childhood, has magic bells that, if played properly, can bring your true love. He plays them for Mina and summons Tern, a prince from another land. Tern and Mina love each other pretty much at first sight, but then that love is put to a test which literally takes them through hell. Their love fulfills a prophecy which bring balance to the power struggle between the Sun and Moon, thus creating the world as we know it.
Mina is truly caught between her parents and is in many ways a pawn in their game. Her mother loves her, although she also seems to resent the parts of Mina that are like her father. Sarastro has some aspirations toward being a good father, but mostly he’s worried about maintaining his power and controlling his daughter. He raises Gayna as his own and she loves him, but at the end she realizes that he was only practicing on her since he had no contact with his biological daughter.
Tern is part of a very healthy family. He has a younger brother, with normal rivalries. His parents want what’s best for both of them, and in the process of figuring this out the father holds a contest to see which son should be his heir. This could have gone all kinds of ugly places, but Tern realizes that his destiny is outside of his kingdom, willingly handing the crown to his younger brother. The brother takes it without jealousy, and Tern leaves with his parents’ blessing and the assurance that he will be welcomed if he returns.
Mina isn’t afraid to go after what she wants, even if it means standing up to her terrifying father. Sarastro’s rather stereotypical assumptions about his wife end up not being true, although it does turn out that she’s not a good person to cross. Gayna, raised to be unquestioningly obedient, also learns to stand up for herself and turns away from the man she thought she loved when she realizes he isn’t everything she thought he was. Lapin and Mina are best friends from childhood and, although he loves her dearly, it’s not at all romantic. Boys and girls can actually be close friends. In the fires of hell, both Mina and Tern falter, each holding the other up in turn.
Destiny and Following Your Heart
There are forces that watch over the world and occasionally intervene. There is no standing up to them when they decide to act. Destiny is inevitable, so you should follow your heart, which is separate from following your mind. Sarastro knew he would need to choose a husband for Mina and that choice would have a huge impact on the world. He kept away from her for the first 16 years of her life so that his heart would play no role in this decision. Of course this backfired completely, and her heart is what mattered in the end.
Hell and Fear
Hell is a very real place, one that people can walk into. But it’s also an internal place—hell is made up of fear and despair; when you give in to these emotions, you’re stuck in hell. However, fear is also a good thing and a smart response, as long as you keep moving in spite of it.
Lady Pamina is the most beautiful of women, with all the beauty of the night sky. When she lives with her mother, Mina covers her hair which is unfortunately the brilliant gold of sunlight. Once she’s with her father, her golden hair makes her seem beautiful. Her eyes, which are two different colors, are beautiful to some and shocking to others. Beauty is cultural, changing with the viewer’s expectations.
Gayna is slightly happy when Mina looks ugly for a moment, and she sees it as totally natural that she would want to hate Mina because of her beauty. Mina has always been jealous because Gayna has had the attention of the father Mina never knew. Eventually, though, they get past their differences and learn to work together for the good of both of them.
Various Points of View
Because of the alternating narrators, we see the story from a variety of viewpoints. This gives us insight into Sarastro that we wouldn’t have from only Mina’s point of view. It lets us know that Tern is the hero, and allows Lapin’s sarcasm keep the romance from getting too cloying. Statos, in many ways our villain, is given his own chapter where he’s upfront about how he’s being portrayed in this story. He tells us that he’s only the villain because this is mostly Mina’s version—in his version, he’s totally not a villain.
Anyone who enjoys fairytales and/or romantic stories should read this book. It’s short and you’ll whip right through it—the quick plot and clever writing will keep you turning pages. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d say ages 10 and up, because younger readers might get frustrated following the changing viewpoints and the observational tone might be a bit much, but it might also make a great read aloud for younger readers.