This guest review comes from Aarya Marsden! Thanks, Aarya!
Aarya Marsden is a pseudonym for an Indian-American college student and long-time romance reader. Her favorite authors include Ilona Andrews, Nalini Singh, Lucy Parker, Alisha Rai, Jeannie Lin, Lisa Kleypas, Alyssa Cole, Tessa Dare, Meredith Duran, Mina V. Esguerra, Kate Clayborn, and many more. You can follow @Aarya_Marsden on Twitter, where she gushes about romance novels and is a firm advocate for a happily-ever-after.
TW/CW: Mention of domestic violence and murder in the review, plus stalking, death threats, extortion via sexual content, and blackmail in the story.
If I had five seconds to pitch Stealing Luna to you, I’d describe it as an art heist romance with a Robin Hood-esque heroine. But since I have more than five seconds, I can say that it’s so much more. It’s about chasing happiness yet finding it too elusive to capture. It’s about the unfairness of corrupt politics and how the only way to get even is to get dirty. It’s about shouldering the weight of family legacies and trying to honor one’s roots while simultaneously trying to escape them. It’s about second chances, forgiveness, and love. But mostly, it’s about stealing a painting in Barcelona with an ex-best friend/object-of-unrequited-love/bodyguard.
Oh. Are you still here? If you haven’t zoomed over to Amazon by now (sorry, it’s only available in Amazon as of today), I guess I still have to write this review. Damn it.
Stealing Luna is the sequel to The Queen’s Game, which focuses on Cora’s best friend and the current queen of Cincamarre. Cincamarre is a fictional Southeast Asian island monarchy near the Philippines. While the furor over Queen Nina’s succession dispute has finally died down, Cora Justa Dumagat’s problems are only beginning:
- Responsible for the management of the Justa Galleries, Cora is desperately trying to keep the family gallery running as it’s struggling from a lack of promotion and modernization.
- Her councilor father’s constituents in South Basco are suffering after a flash flood that destroyed an entire subdivision on Ivatan Mountain. It seems like an unpreventable tragedy, but Cora knows the truth. That subdivision should never have been built in such a dangerous location and she knows who to blame: the greedy and corrupt council members who approved the special building permit. The worst part? Council member Rudy Joaquin, a corrupt businessman who she just knows is responsible for the permit, has acquired a Juan Luna painting. An extremely rare and assumed-to-have-been-missing Luna painting. Picture the Joaquin family – including Rudy and his bratty twin daughters – as the human embodiment of the Monopoly Man, complete with bags of money, a top hat, cane, and monocle (yes, I know that the Monopoly Man doesn’t have a monocle but it adds to the overall image of Evil and Rich Fat Cats). Actually, maybe just picture a bunch of literal fat cats lazing around gold fountains of milk. Oooh, or maybe imagine Scrooge McDuck jumping gleefully into a pile of gold coins.
- You’d think that things couldn’t get worse. Oh, you’d be wrong. Because they get a lot worse. Cora’s ex-best friend from college is here. Luis Simon Ang is her ex-Most Important Person because she offered her heart to him on a silver platter and he shattered it into a million little pieces. It’s been six years, but she’s never truly forgotten the only man she’s ever loved. And the cherry on top? Cora’s godfather has hired the services of Luis’s security company because she’s received mysterious death threats from an unknown enemy. So now she’s stuck with him for the foreseeable future.
The universe may be conspiring against Cora, but she’s an A+ problem-solver who shrugs at the universe and tells it to fuck off. After being provoked by the fat cats-slash-Scrooge McDucks, she decides that she’s going to pay homage to her thieving Justas family legacy and engage in a little… redistributing. As in, the redistributing of the Joaquins’ newly-acquired Luna painting from its Barcelona museum tour to a worthier home. Without blinking an eye or hesitating over the ethical implications, Cora ropes in her security team and her artistic friends to stage the heist. What commences is a delightful art heist with strategy equal to the chops of Ocean’s 8.
I love a lot about this book: 1) Cora and her unrelenting mission to mete out justice, 2) the strange but wonderful mixing of tropes: second-chance, friends-to-lovers, and unrequited love, 3) the centering of Southeast Asian characters and the secondary relationship of a lesbian couple, and 4) the love letter to the artistic world.
1) Cora and her unrelenting mission to mete out justice
Cora is the star of Stealing Luna. It’s perhaps strange to root for a heroine who regularly commits art heists in an effort to remove art from undeserving/corrupt owners. Normally we expect protagonists to be upstanding citizens and moral contributing members of society. And honestly, I don’t give a damn about what’s normal or expected. I was 100% ready to help Cora stage that heist, too. Why? Because it’s not fair, damn it. It’s not fair that the Joaquins get to profit from the pain and suffering of ordinary citizens while they dive into pools of money. It’s not fair that they get to buy a famous painting and preen in front of media while a flood drives thousands of people out of their homes – homes that wouldn’t have been built if it weren’t for Rudy Joaquin’s corrupt dealings.
We all know that the 1% doesn’t always come by its money honestly; Cora is taking a stand and actually doing something about it to even the scales. There’s a reason why we all love Robin Hood and it’s not just because we’re all strangely attracted to a cartoon anthropomorphic fox (okay, that’s a little bit why but the “fuck the rich” message is definitely important, too).
I adore how neither Cora nor her co-conspirators – security team members Luis and Ellie as well as forger Mimi and her lover-slash-restoration-artist Jin – ever voice moral objections to the heist. Oh, Luis once asks Cora if stealing art from unworthy owners makes her truly happy, but he’s not against the heist in principle. I’m grateful that the characters don’t express hesitation over the illegality. Stealing Luna is an unapologetic revenge fantasy that screws over the rich, and I am 100% here for it.
2) The strange but wonderful mixing of tropes: second-chance, friends-to-lovers, and unrequited love
Romance readers are all familiar with these tropes but I love how the combination produces a unique romantic premise. It has vague overtones of second-chance because they’re restarting their terminated friendship. Like a normal second chance romance, Luis and Cora have a lot of relationship/friendship baggage and take tentative steps to reconnect. There’s a slight awkwardness in the air as they reassess the changes in the other person and decide if they still have the spark of companionship. And like all second chance romances, they come to the conclusion that even if the respective edges of their personality have altered, they still fit together pretty well. It’s a gradual realization, and it’s poignant for them to find each other again after years of separation.
Despite the uncomfortable first meeting where Cora is furious at Luis for showing up without warning, Stealing Luna is primarily a friends-to-lovers romance. I was taken aback when Luis begged for forgiveness immediately and apologized for acting like a fool in college. And I was even more surprised when Cora agreed to not be hostile. Where, I wondered, would the relationship conflict be found if Cora wasn’t bitter and angry over their falling out?
“I wasn’t the person you wanted, Cora. I was a scared young guy who was failing, who didn’t know how to make his own way through things. I was scared of hurting you, so I lied about how I felt and walked away. I thought I was saving you from more hurt, but instead…I made you feel the one thing you never wanted. I’m sorry that I caused you pain.”
And that’s where I was mistaken. Stealing Luna would have been an entirely different book had Cora and Luis been at each other’s throats. By allowing Cora to consider Luis’s sincere apology and slowly forgive him, the novel is able to explore the nuances of their friendship more deeply. Despite the six year rift, they fall back into the comfortable beats of their friendship quite easily. They tease each other, plan complex heist strategies, and contemplate what they really want out of life. Don’t get me wrong – Cora still guards her heart and doesn’t entirely trust Luis with it, but there’s no antagonism. Just the sweetness and awkwardness of two friends falling in love with each other despite the shadow of a past separation.
Finally, there is a hint of the unrequited love trope. While the reader knows that Luis is desperately in love with Cora, our thieving heroine doesn’t know that she’s stolen Luis’s heart. It’s an uncomfortable yet irresistible situation: 1) Cora loves Luis but is scared to confess her love because he can’t be trusted with it and 2) Luis loves Cora but is hesitant to immediately reveal it without ruining the tentative overtures of friendship. It’s not exactly unrequited love, but the angst and uncertainty that Cora feels is certainly very similar to the emotions in an unrequited love romance.
3) The centering of Southeast Asian characters and the secondary relationship of a lesbian couple
If you don’t know what Romance Class is, it’s a community of Filipino authors who write and promote romantic fiction. I’ve read several #romanceclass novels and have enjoyed the #ownvoices and contemporary non-US/Europe setting. Even though the majority of Stealing Luna takes place in Spain, the worldbuilding of Cincamarre is wonderfully drawn out. Fictional European countries tucked between France and the Swiss Alps are dime a dozen. I don’t want to read about another country like Genovia (or Aldovia. Or Belgravia. For crying out loud, Netflix, can we name fictional European countries something other than “something-ia?”).
I especially don’t want to be reading about the 100th reiteration of a British/French/Swiss royalty meld if I can instead be reading about a fictional monarchy drawing upon the rich traditions of the Philippines and colonial Spain. I don’t have any personal knowledge or experience with Southeast Asia, but it doesn’t matter: the book is a love letter to the Philippines. I can’t pinpoint any one specific marker of representation because the entire worldbuilding is immersed in Filipino culture – the names, the art, the cultural norms, the botany, and the historical references to Spain’s colonization. It’s difficult to describe every single detail of authenticity, but I can recognize it when I read it.
The secondary lesbian romance between art forger Mimi and restoration artist Jin also makes my heart swell. I don’t want to reveal too much because I want you to discover how incredible they are on your own, but they are hilarious and loving and complicated and… Okay, I should shut up now. But I finished the book with a desperate need for their story. I would read the hell out of a book where Mimi and Jin first met on a heist job.
4) The love letter to the artistic world
I don’t know anything about art. I vaguely know something about Picasso and I know that my favorite paintings are impressionist, but my lack of knowledge is irrelevant. I love art museums. When my parents used to live near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I used to spend every day in the summer wandering around the elegant hallways and being incredulous that the human brain could create these marvels. Even though I can’t speak to the accuracy of any of the artistic references, the worldbuilding is full of artistic historical significance and symbols. The book refers to European artists that everyone is familiar with, like Monet or Leonardo da Vinci. But the book rightly centers the work of Filipino revolutionary and artist Juan Luna, the titular Luna from Stealing Luna.
I’m a little ashamed to admit it but I should confess: I thought Juan Luna was fictional, just like the island of Cincamarre. It is a ridiculously Western-centric and arrogant assumption to make: I knew that the referenced European artists (even the names that were unfamiliar to me) were real so why did I assume that the non-Western artist was fictional? To my surprise, Luna not only existed in real life but so did his two paintings featured in the novel: ¿A Do…Va la Nave? and Portrait of a Lady.
As a partial defense, I couldn’t fathom that the book’s description of Juan Luna might be true: he painted his wife in Portrait of a Lady and then eventually murdered her. To this day, there is a “curse” that states that any possessor of the painting will encounter bad luck. In the beginning of the book, Cora has acquired Portrait of a Lady as a loan and points out the curse. It felt Scarlet Letter-esque as an example of on-the-nose symbolism. Now that I know the truth, I can only shake my head in wonder. The adage is true: reality is stranger than fiction sometimes. The foreboding of the painting’s curse looms over Cora and Luis, and the symbolism is so much more effective now that I am aware of Luna’s existence.
While there is no acceptable explanation for my mistaken assumption, I am grateful that I randomly googled the name. When I searched for ¿A Do…Va la Nave? (the painting that Cora wants to steal from the Joaquins), I realized that the painting was sold to a private bidder for nearly a million dollars. The identity of the bidder is secret, but I can easily pretend that the Joaquins really did buy the painting. And perhaps my overactive imagination is getting away from me, but I may have fantasized about planning my own heist and stealing the Luna in real life (“may” being the operative word. I plead the fifth!).
Spoilery Discussion of Potentially Triggering Plotline (as mentioned in TW/CW)
Since the TW/CW in the beginning of the review does not go into detail, I want to provide additional context to an extremely spoilery plot point that occurs toward the end of Stealing Luna.
The TW/CW mentions “stalking, death threats, extortion via sexual content, and blackmail.” To be clear: no one in the novel gets physically hurt or injured. The main villain (the sender of the death threats, which causes Cora’s godfather to hire Luis) has a grudge against Cora and wants her to back off from seeking justice. Midway through the book, Cora and Luis have sex. Cora later finds blown up pictures of their intimacy in her apartment, implying that the villain has been stalking her and is capable of extortion via sexual content. Those images are never distributed or made public. And while there is a rather tense showdown with the villain, no one gets hurt.
Abrupt Ending and a Lack of Groveling
If I have so much praise for Stealing Luna, why am I rating the book as a B? As much as I adored the setting and the characters, I really struggled with the ending.
Cora hides a large secret from Luis. She does it because of trust issues, but he is rightfully angry at her. She messed up. I don’t have a problem with the conflict (actually, I kind of love that the heroine screws up majorly because it’s more common that the hero screws up). But when Cora and Luis meet up again at the very end, Luis accepts her apology almost immediately. This is how that scene plays out:
Luis: *realizes that Cora has lied to him and is very upset. In particular, he feels used and manipulated as Cora’s lies influenced some of his actions.*
Two weeks pass, with no contact between Cora or Luis. Luis is still very angry and betrayed. After talking with some friends, Luis decides to find Cora and end this standoff. As soon as they see each other, the following occurs:
Cora: *apologizes for betraying his trust in around two paragraphs. It is very sincere, but still two paragraphs.*
They then discuss if they truly love or trust each other for about a page.
Cora: *apologizes again in a paragraph, calling herself an idiot.*
They forgive each other for everything and kiss, living happily ever after.
I’m the kind of reader who requires a proportional amount of groveling to the screw up. This final exchange is around five minutes in real time or 2-3 pages on my e-reader. I don’t think Cora’s “crime” is unforgivable, but she doesn’t grovel/repent enough for my taste. I understand that Luis probably cooled off during the two week separation, but I really wish that the book were slightly longer: more time for the couple to make up and more time for me to see their happily ever after. Cora says all the right words and apologizes correctly, but the ‘crime to apology’ ratio still feels imbalanced. And since the book ends very quickly after this scene, the ending feels disjointed and unsatisfactory.
I really enjoyed the majority of the book, but a disjointed ending can color my overall impression as it’s the last memory I have of the couple. I still believe in Cora and Luis’s happily ever after since they are so wonderful and right for each other, but I wish they had more time post-heist to settle into their relationship.
Despite my quibbles with the abrupt ending and the insufficient amount of groveling, I do recommend this book. The Robin Hood-esque premise and the Southeast Asian protagonists are marvelous; I think anyone who loves Ocean’s 8 or other heist books is sure to enjoy Stealing Luna.