Trials of Communication and Triumphs of Empathy, a review of Avi Silver’s Two Dark Moons

DISCLAIMER: I do have a personal connection with Avi Silver, the author of this work. We met in freshman year of college and roomed together the following year. It is up to the reader to decide if that kind of intimacy and co-habitation makes a critic more or less likely to extend unreasonable courtesy towards a given author. I was graciously sent an electronic advanced reader’s copy of the book, and the review that follows is as honest and thoughtful as I am able to render a personal opinion. 

The world of Ateng is one rife with ritual and auspice. 

Ama and Cheheng, the two moons in the night sky over Ateng, govern most aspects of life in the hmun. In Ateng, the heavens do more than assign purported characteristics of personality, as the zodiac is said to do in our world. The moons one is born under determine most aspects of one’s life in the hmun; they govern gender assignation — male, female, or both; they inform what marriages would be considered beneficial; what positions one may hold in the community (leadership, responsibilities, etc); and more, in addition to the more familiar behavior and personality traits. 

The struggle of being out of joint, an interruption in the flow of life and tradition has been a part of Sohmeng’s life ever since her birth. But a catastrophe which resulted in a total collapse (literally) of the traditional migration of the hmun between its two mountain top territories, also ultimately stole the lives of her parents and stalled any chance of Sohmeng and her generational cohort of completing the ritual known as tengmunji which would usher them into adulthood.

The trappings of childhood grate at Sohmeng Par (the second name supposedly denotes the aspect of the moons in the sky on the night of her birth), and her impetuous, “speak first, ask for forgiveness later” character has gotten her into trouble again. The beginning of the novel finds her arguing with her brother as she goes to plead her case to the council of hmun elders.

The narrative of Two Dark Moons is the deceptively simple outer garment of a complex mystery. It follows in the tradition of “Young Adult Fantasy” or “coming of age” novels in that it includes a home, a fall, an adventure beyond the boundaries of what is known, and the journey to return, during which it becomes clear that the person who left the village at the beginning is a stranger to the one who now attempts to return. 

Instead, I believe that the beating heart of Two Dark Moons are the questions of language and communication – epistemology and belonging – which it engages so effortlessly. These questions are so intrinsic to the characters and the story that they are almost rendered invisible.

Every world, every community, every person has a story, a mythology, a structure which defines them and their place in creation. One of the great myths of humankind, passed down from the Ancient Egyptians to the Greeks, that encompass the Torah, the Talmud, the Bible, the Quran, ties language to divinity. We need not invoke the fall of Babel and the fracturing of mankind into disparate groups unable to communicate. Prometheus may have given humankind fire but Thoth taught Pharaohs and their priests to write and in so doing changed the fate of humanity forever.

The utilitarian definition of language sees it as a means of conveying information, words become signs which point to objects or abstract concepts thereby allowing individuals to articulate information about the world. It is also the framework within which any group or community makes sense of the world around them, and of their place within it.

Without sliding into linguistic determinism, Silver’s novel carefully lays out how language reflects and perpetuates the knowledge and structures of a given community. It is no surprise to those familiar with the convention of the “coming-of-age novel” that the limitations of culture and community, and the impositions they place upon the conception of the self, are tested by the experience of travelling outside and beyond them. 

Constructed languages (or “ConLangs” [1]) are a misunderstood though increasingly prevalent aspect of science-/speculative-/fantasy-fiction. In Two Dark Moons, Silver does more than apply the anti-censorship obfuscation tactic of TV (“She’s a fracking Cylon!”) or the use of “foreign” language as a way of making the Other more remote and unknown (“Cthulhu fhtagn” or “the practice of Kelno’reem”). Language is a vital component of life in  and structure of communication in the book form an important dimension of the story from the very beginning.

Language is a constant battle in Two Dark Moons. Sohmeng, the hot-headed protagonist, struggles to communicate, her “speak first, apologize later” attitude has landed her in hot water (the ‘again’ is implicit) at the beginning of the novel. 

As she makes her case before the council of elders, 24 total, representing each of the lunar phases, with the exception of Minhal – the darkest night, the “bad sign” of the new moons, when the Gods’ eyes are turned away from the hmun

As she prepares and makes her case to the council of elders, it becomes clear that Sohmeng is no stranger to the difficulties of communication. The complexities of clarity and diplomacy are rendered vividly. 

The struggle to remain both truthful and diplomatic (the first of which, for Sohmeng, is fundamentally compromised by the circumstances of her birth), to balance being understood and to convince others to give you what you want, is put front and center. 

At home, among the hmun, Sohmeng has already lost the battle and tipped the scales more toward brutal clarity, and suffers the subsequent social isolation familiar to anyone with an undisciplined tongue. Sohmeng is the victim of another trait of those who find themselves too close to the edge: she sees with great clarity the threads of responsibility and choice that bind her community together. She has the consigned/committed pariah’s certainty that if people would just take her seriously, life might be easier for everyone.

Somheng’s parents were traders and as such, she speaks the trader pidgin used to conduct transactions between different hmun[2], putting her a full step closer to bilingualism than anyone else in her community. The cognitive and intellectual flexibility introduced with any form of bilingualism (a trait the novel engenders through the use of the incorporation of hmunpa into the narrative), a subtle alienation from a unified or totalizing description of the world which can sometimes develop as a result of monolingualism, primes Sohmeng (and encourages the reader) to successfully re-evaluate the world around her and her position within it. 

Two Dark Moons does not limit itself to exploring language as an instrument of epistemology. It also commits itself to the complex project of understanding sentience and communication in both non-human and non-linguistic terms. In our world, the efforts of conservationists, naturalists, and cognitive scientists have done their part to show that the rest of the animal kingdom has as much claim to sensibility and complex cognition as does humankind and, moreover, that the distance between “human” and “animal” is insignificant.

The forests in the valley from which the five fingers of Ateng emerge shelter a reptilian apex predator, the Sãoni. Even from the safety of the hmun they are all too real to be dismissed as some kind of boogeyman. Like the stories European explorers brought back of panthers and leopards – natives ceding territory to the uncontested regents of the jungle – the Sãoni are a death sentence to those exiled or separated from the community. 

Where Silver’s world building and empathic sensitivity shine, setting the shared world of Eiji and Ateng apart, is their refusal to recognize the traditional barriers of intelligence and love. Anthropomorphized animal narrators are a staple of fantasy fiction, as is the reversal of the seemingly “animal” into an intelligent Other. Silver chooses to remind us that speech is not the be-all, end-all of communication. 

Even as our own scientific exploration now shows that elephants, whales, and dolphins possess a greater capacity for complex thought than previously afforded to them by humanity, the colony of Sãoni she joins show Somheng that viewing language-based communication as the pinnacle of intelligent evolution is an affectation of humanity. 

Ultimately, the demand for complex empathy across species is a lesson which prepares Sohmeng (and the audience) for the much more complicated business of empathizing with those human strangers who look and speak in unfamiliar ways.

It is easy to focus on the tradition of social commentary which has defined speculative fiction from early eu-/utopias through the tradition of feminist and queer SF/F, a tradition of which Two Dark Moons is undeniably a part. Indeed, the novel works diligently to challenge the audience’s assumptions regarding the “natural” organization of human beings and expands the possibilities of gender assignations, linguistic conventions, and reproductive configurations, in addition to more common topics in mainstream SF/F such as styles of governance and environmental systems. 

Silver is also able to impart a wisdom so often lacking from the ever-rising tide of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction which threatens to overwhelm every imaginable media outlet. They recognize that a community and a culture, even in the midst of crisis, is often able to carry on with a semblance of normalcy which can conceal impending catastrophe. As an author, Silver is willing to confront the re-traumatization inherent in history and discovery. There are questions which lurk in the caves and hollows which will never yield answers and the grief of them is something Sohmeng, and ultimately her hmun, must learn to live with, without hope or promise of closure. 

There is a transcendental impulse in Two Dark Moons, best recognized and understood by looking out at the world and knowing enough of life and death to be able to name what is before and around us, that great cycle of which we are a part, as “One.” The decision not to hold one’s self apart from the complexity and intricacies of “everything” reminds us that we are governed as much by the salt of the earth as we are by the movement of the heavens.

Perhaps my only complaint, and it’s merely a matter of form and personal preference, is that the story ends not quite on a cliffhanger (that comes at the start of the novel, actually) but with an unrepentant promise of a sequel. There is much still to learn of Ateng, Eiji, the hmun and the travails that await them, but in a world gone mad for sequels, prequels, series, et. al. it can be exhausting to add another to the list. That having been said, I would not trade my experience traveling through Eiji for anything. 


Two Dark Moons is now available at Amazon. Grab a copy! (Not an affiliate link)


1. “Constructed Languages” can refer to a variety of different types of languages which are intentionally developed by individuals. There are conlangs which are nominally dedicated to facilitating global communication or even communication with extraterrestrials, such as Esperanto and AI. However, the kind currently proliferating are those often referred to as “Art Languages” or “ArtLangs” which are languages developed as part of a wider artistic endeavor or for personal use and/or entertainment. The most well-known artlang is undoubtedly Tolkien’s Elvish, though Dothraki (developed for television by David Peterson) and Klingon are not unfamiliar. Both art- and conlangs are held to fairly stringent linguistic standards, and to be a fully developed “language” must meet the same requirements as any organic or naturally occurring language. For example, they require grammars and vocabularies which exceed a specific quantity. Therefore, most conlangs are developed over years and decades and are the result of an astounding quantity of work and thought. For more information about Constructed Languages and the people who love them, check out the Language Construction Society. (They have a really great convention, I went to it once, it changed my life.)

2. I think it is a collective noun, it could follow the plural prefix format and be bahmun as a plural, but that might be a human/animal plural instead. Without a full grammar for the language, this will have to remain speculation. I hope that we do get a chance to dig into the linguistic world of Ateng in the future.