Well, after years of anticipation, I finally found out why I had missed this book when it first came out. For one thing, it was not yet published when I first read Birth of the Firebringer, and for another it came out only in hardback, which as a high school student I could scarcely afford even if I knew about it. Eight long years passed between the publication dates of the first and second books of the trilogy, leading me to believe that Birth of the Firebringer largely was intended as a stand alone novel, and as such it worked very well. Dark Moon, however, does not.
Meredith Ann Pierce said that Dark Moon was very difficult for her to write in comparision to Birth of the Firebringer and honestly I think it shows. Eight years might still not have been enough time (or maybe it was too much?). While it's not quite as bad as a review lead me to fear (where Jan is compared to being a unicorn cigarette lighter), it's not of the caliber of the first. I knew I was in bad shape when I read Jah-lila's prologue, since she continues her role as narrator as promised at the end of Birth of the Firebringer, and I was unable to recognize her voice. Just something in Pierce's word choice rang false and I didn't feel like I was listening to the Jah-lila I once knew. Another part of the problem with the book is the believability. Birth of the Firebringer created a world with different tribes, different beliefs, and different customs, and that made it believable, but the problem in some ways is that Meredith Ann Pierce expanded on that. Not that expanding is bad, but it's the way she handled it.
Several new species are introduced into the mix. While the two-foots (aka humans) appear as a society for the first time, we knew about them before from Jan's vision towards the end of the first book and that they existed far beyond the Summer Sea from where Jah-lila was born. The narwhales, unicorns of the sea, were also a reasonable introduction given that they live in the ocean and the unicorns of the Vale would have no reason to know of them. But the introduction of the herons, the windriders, could have been handled better, the reason being what we learned of the unicorns' religion in the first book.
A culture can only possess things in its religion that it's been exposed to, so without any knowledge of narwhales it stands to reason that narwhales would not exist of any of the unicorns' creation myths. However, the unicorns met the herons during still legendary times. When the unicorns fled the Hallow Hills the herons offered them succor and eventually lead them to the Vale that became their home. The herons, however, were never mentioned among the previous five races of unicorn, red dragon, gryphon, pan, and wyvern, who are the only races discussed in the unicorn legends. It just seems like a glaring omission. Even if the unicorns did not change their creation myths after meeting the herons, it would have been nice if they had developed another legend explaining how the herons, as a "new" race, had come into being. The herons are introduced as the unicorns' only steadfast allies and given that, their existence should be accounted for in some fashion or the unicorns' cosmology becomes called into question.
Another addition that I found bothersome is the addition of a seasonal courtship holiday. There's nothing inherently wrong with that except that all initiated and unpaired unicorns must undergo the trek and remain from summer solstice to fall equinox on the shores of the Summer Sea. Considering that initiation happens at the beginning of spring, that means that newly fledged unicorns only spend a couple months at home before disappearing for another three. It just seems like a really bad idea to send so many young warrior unicorns off away from the rest of the herd for so long, especially since the unicorns have the enmity of nearly all the races around them. At least where they spend their summer is largely watched over by the herons so they're not entirely unguarded. Though of course, on Jan's most recent trip there, trouble befalls him, or there would be no book at all.
Dark Moon begins a little over a year after the first book, and Jan is now prince of the unicorns (his grandsire, Khraa, died at the end of the last book, making his father, Korr, king). The Jan of this book still disagrees with his father, but he's more mature about their differences. He has reason to be. According to their laws, the king rules the unicorns in times of peace, but the unicorns have considered themselves at war ever since they were driven from the Hallow Hills by the wyverns. During times like these, the prince is considered the leader. Korr does not take this retirement of his easily, and it becomes a sticking point later on.
Aside from being prince, Jan's destiny as the Firebringer weighs heavily on his mind. He gets completely hung up over what fire is and how to get it. (And he seems to have forgotten much of what he learned in the first book, though granted he was in a stupor for part of the time.) What I don't get is no one seems to know that he's the Firebringer. In the first book he said he would tell his friends "tomorrow." Since neither Tek nor Dagg ever comments on that, it would appear that he never told them. But the Firebringer has a specific prophecied look to him, being all black with a white crescent moon on his brow and a white star on his heel. Even if that was dismissed by the casual observer as folklore, there is something else leftover from the first book that someone in the herd should have noticed. The coat color of the royal line hadn't run true since the unicorns left the Hallow Hills. Every other unicorn inherits their father's color except for the royal family. Korr's is black and, until becoming the Firebringer, Jan's was brown. Now that Jan is black as well I can't believe that the unicorns in the heard would just miss that. Something obviously happened.
After the first few chapters, this book largely takes place in two parts. Shortly after pledging himself to Tek as her mate, Jan is washed out to sea and winds up in none other than the city from which Jah-lila originally came. This city, full of two-footed humans, mistaken him for a messenger of their god, Dai'chon, if not Dai'chon himself. Having lost his memory for some reason never explained (other that it was probably his goddess's doing), he finds it quite pleasant to allow these two-foots to care for him. They feed him well and provide him with shelter for the oncoming winter. While here, he also witnesses that these two-foots can actually control and create fire, which is another reason he doesn't leave. He doesn't remember much, but he does know that he has to learn about fire.
The city also introduces him to the daya (singular: da), which are essentially horses, except with exceptional intelligence. Jan is shocked by the practices between da and two-foot. Gelding, for example, is unspeakable, but the daya bear it because they believe it is part of the will of Dai'chon, who is curiously shared as a deity by both the two-foots and the daya. The daya are fatalistic if nothing else. The daya Jan sees the most of are actually sacred to Dai'chon, and he's quite incredulous when he learns that the female daya of the sacred herd have no say in their mates, who is simply the strongest stallion who can win all his battles for mating rights. Jan actually disposes of the First Stallion while defending one of the mares as a matter of courtesy and inadvertently becomes First Stallion himself (though he never carries out his duties because he's quite clueless about it until it no longer matters anyway).
Unlike the previous book where everyone except the pans spoke the same language (which is why the pans were thought incapable of speaking at all), the two-foots have their own speech, which Jan readily recognizes as being a different language. That might be due to his memory, and possibly prejudices, being wiped out, but in any case, he finds himself in a strange land full of two-foots wearing false skins and speaking a language he just barely learns a few sentences of by the end of the story. (While the daya understand the two-foot language, they cannot speak it. Jan, however, can manage a few words with great difficulty.)
One thing I found particularly well done is the difference in speech between Jan and the daya. The unicorns' speech has always been represented by a stilted, archaic form of English. The daya, being considered a different tribe, but not a different species entirely, speak the same language but with a different archaic English accent if such a thing can be considered possible. Their choice of words clearly differ from each other, making them distinct enough to be two different cultures with the same language, while still making each of them completely comprehensible to the reader. That was quite a piece of work.
Inevitably Jan realizes that even if he doesn't have his memory back and he doesn't fully understand fire, he must leave, and he does so in a bang, revealing the god Dai'chon to actually be the city's two-foot ruler and simultaneously learning that the sharpened hooves and horn of a unicorn work like steel against stone to start a fire. The unicorns of the Vale are great fencers and it's while dueling against the chon (the ruler's mortal title) that he starts a fire through the sparks generated during their battle. His departure is perhaps a bit abrupt, with him chasing after Ryhenna (one of the da he befriended), whose mane caught on fire, and the two of them accidentally falling into the sea in their haste, but we are assured by his goddess, Alma, of what will happen after he leaves. She chastises him for thinking that he would serve her only for the unicorns and that now, because of what he had done in the two-foot city, there would rise a new worship of Dai'chon, as a kinder more benevolent deity--in short, what Jan had become to both the daya and the more humble two-foots of the city.
The other half of the story revolves around Tek, who must have had a bang up time with Jan on their pledge night because she finds herself in foal before long. I actually enjoyed Tek's half of the book much better, because even if Jan didn't know what was going on in the two-foot city, it's quite transparent to the two-foot reader who makes up the book's audience. Korr takes Jan's supposed death quite harshly, largely disappearing from the public eye. A new character, Sa, Jan's granddam and Khraa's widow, rises to provide encouragement for the grieving Tek and guidence to the rest of the herd until Korr returns to the spotlight.
Jan's younger sister, Lell, is too young to take on the role of princess, having not even been weaned yet, so Korr declares himself regent until Lell is old enough to assume her duties. But beyond that, he claims that Jan's death was a sign from Alma that they have strayed too far from her teachings (since Jan was well known for being an innovator during his brief rule). Korr declares a return to "tradition," which actually translates into whatever he says is law. When the worst winter yet descends upon the unicorns and Korr allows unicorns to die rather than share in what little food can be found, it becomes quite clear that he has gone mad. By the time spring arrives, a full half the herd has perished from starvation.
The strangest part of it is, he actually blames it on Tek, and I really don't know why. He seemed to think well enough of her in the first book, and Dagg mentions a couple times that Korr used to think quite highly of her. I'm not sure what caused such a while swing in temperment but I have a slight suspicion it might be answered in the third book since that looks like where the full story of him and Jah-lila will be revealed, and Tek, being Jah-lila's daughter, might be part of the that.
Eventually Tek is forced to flee the Vale or Korr and his followers would surely kill her (Jan sees this in a fever dream and draws an interesting comparision between Korr's behavior and that of the brutal chon of the two-foots). She meets up with Jah-lila and in the process learns that Jan is alive and the story of her own heritage. One part I didn't like was discovering that Teki is not actually Tek's father, because I didn't see any reason why he wouldn't be. And here's where the sematics get bad again.
In Birth of the Firebringer Jah-lila's first person narrative refers to Teki as "the one who calls himself my mate," which I had always read as having a derisive tone to it because Teki was always the one telling the tradiational tales and even singing the lays of the horrible fates of the renegades who broke the Law. In Dark Moon she says she called him her mate, which has a different connotation to it. Previously it sounded like she and Teki didn't think much of each other and hence their separate lives. Dark Moon reveals that surprisingly she and Teki got along well, both being intellectuals among unicorns. Theirs was a pairing of colleagues and the "mate" designation a mere formality to dissuade prying eyes. Jah-lila and Teki never pledged to each other. And eventually Jah-lila left the Vale because she realized that she could not fit in since she looks so differently from the rest (no cloven hooves, a long silken instead of tassled tail, etc.). Jah-lila is also continually referred to as the Red Mare in this book, which previously was a title only the plainsdwellers (the non-Vale unicorns) used. For a story the plainsdwellers don't even appear in, except as Jah-lila's unseen audience, that strikes me rather odd.
And for apparently no reason at all, Jah-lila tells Tek that her real father was a renegade who fled the Vale and its Ring of Law. I don't particular like this because it introduces a new character who is only touched upon in that one instance. Tek's color closely matches Teki since they're both paints, except that she's pale rose and black and he's white and black. But still I figured that was "close enough" that I didn't think anything of it. I can only hope that her father turns up in the third book and has a real purpose behind him or I'll be greatly irritated.
Jah-lila is also regarded in a darker light by the other unicorns in this book, being referred to as a wych. Earlier she was just a magicker and most unicorns figured she lived outside of the Vale just because "it was her way." Now she's a wych, the daughter of renegades, and other such things. She's also given a permenant home, of which there was no mention in the previous book. I thought Jah-lila's home was more or less the open road, but now it's revealed that she lives southeast of the Vale.
Another thing that contributed to my irritation about not knowing who knew about Jan being the Firebringer is that in his madness, Korr declares himself to be the Firebringer. If everybody, or even just Tek and Dagg, knew Jan was the Firebringer, then Korr probably would never have pulled that off. Korr's mate Ses already knew who the Firebringer was (having known in the first book that she was fated to give birth to him one day), though out of respect for him her power was probably limited in what she would or would not do. But still, if there had been some clarification that Jan had not told anyone about his destiny that would have helped lend credence to Korr's attempt at deception (even though by then the herd was so decimated that they proably wouldn't have believed him anyway).
Eventually Jan returns to the Vale with Ryhenna, who seems to enjoy a better welcome that what I presume Jah-lila had, since Jan speaks up for her and Dagg falls in love with her immediately. (One bit of dislike I have is that Ryhenna seems to serve little purpose other than being dragged across the sea to fulfill the dream that Dagg told Jan about in the beginning of the book.) As Jan enjoys his homecoming, Tek returns as well with their twin foals (who are another mess since the color running true again bit seems to have been forgotten and neither of the two kids are all black--one's pure white and the other looks like a jester with alternating black and white legs and body). However, despite Jan's return, Korr is still quite mad. (And truthfully I miss the "thunder" that made up his name. What happened to the mighty stallion that trumpeted "Stand at my shoulder, O Mother-of-all!" when facing the gryphon who tried to kill him and his family?) Jah-lila entreats Korr to tell the truth about what happened to them out on the plains all those years ago, and implies that he will be set free from his madness once he has done so, however she cannot speak of it herself since she had sworn not to until he speaks first.
That's a bit of a problem since in the first book Jah-lila outright tells Jan that she will tell him that story someday and there is no mention of waiting until Korr gives his okay. In fact, she tells Jan that she actually removed most of Korr's memory regarding the matter and that she might someday give it back to him, but only if he wants it. The whole way that was handled didn't connect the two books very well. In Dark Moon she said Korr abandoned her because he feared for his future as prince if it became known that he had helped a stranger become a unicorn. In Birth of the Firebringer I had always assumed that Korr was distant from her because he no longer remembered much, if any, of what he had done and without knowing what they had gone through together he had no reason to be close (and there's the fact he's very suspicious of dreaming seers of which Jah-lila is one). The first book said that by breaking the Law to help Jah-lila he had opened his mind to a wyvern's spells, and Jah-lila was barely able to hold the wyvern's magic at bay. I had assumed part of that was the reason for the drastic measure of taking away part of his memory. Korr's mind would be back, secure, within his Ring of Law if he no longer had any memory of breaking it.
Jan also has a case of monumental stupidity remembering what little he does know of the story, which is basically the Jah-lila was not originally a unicorn and Korr showed her the way to become one. It takes him forever to figure out that Jah-lila used to not be a unicorn and that was something he already knew at the end of the first book!
Anyway, so Dark Moon ends on an incomplete note. Korr's still insane at the end of the book, we know it's because of something we haven't been told yet, and the final few chapters are also set up for impending peacemaking between the unicorns and the gryphons and pans. Maybe now Jan will finally announce himself as a the Firebringer. Even Jah-lila's afterward admits she rambled and she couldn't finish everything. At the end of Birth of the Firebringer she says that she'll tell the rest the next evening (this book), but at the end of Dark Moon she runs out of time, so the final bit is for the third evening. It was probably the sorriest epilogue for the fact it served no purpose other than to tell the readers to wait a while longer. The main story is probably Jan's quest to learn fire, but being the middle book it doesn't seem as much else besides filler. There's no conclusion along the lines of "And thus did Aljan, son-of-Korr, bring fire to the unicorns of the Vale, so that the children-of-the-moon might behold the stuff of the sun." And that was disappointing.
I presume the last book is the story of the reclaiming of the Hallow Hills (and Jah-lila's afterword promises that it will be). Perhaps this will keep the story in firmer territory and provide some explanation of the descrepancies found in here.