There are two things you need to know about this book: It's set in the 1920s, and the heroine is known around town as the "Singing Vampire Suffragette." Also, it's awesome.
Zephyr Hollis is a social activist in Progressive-Era Manhattan. She teaches basic literacy to immigrants and volunteers at the local soup kitchen and engages in all the various volunteer efforts you'd expect from a Jazz Age charity worker. But there's a twist: Zephyr's particular cause is the plight of the Others, the downtrodden supernatural creatures packed into the Lower East Side alongside the rest of the period's immigrants.
Moonshine opens with Zephyr's latest attempt to save the world. She's biking along Lafayette Street and comes across a newly-turned vampire child. Unable to abandon the body to the police for staking and beheading, she ropes one of her night-school students, the suspiciously well-dressed, well-spoken Amir, into helping rescue him. As they wrestle with the bloodthirsty boy, Amir discovers Zephyr's curious immunity to vampire bites. So he strong-arms her into using her fame as the city's vampire suffragette to help find the city's most powerful crime boss, the mysterious Rinaldo — who, it turns out, is a vampire.
So she enlists the help of an debutante reporter and users her do-gooder persona to infiltrate a gang of teen vampires. All this while battling her attraction to the handsome Amir, whose motives she can't quite pin down.
Zephyr's not the Shadow. She's not a crime fighter. But she owes Amir a favor, and her relationship with Others is more complicated than it appears. She's constantly agitating and picketing on their behalf, but her father is a legendary demon hunter back in her home state of Montana. When she first arrived in the city, she took up with the vampire-slaying Defenders, even though she quickly broke away and reinvented herself as an advocate for Manhattan's most maligned immigrant group. But she's still got the skills, and she knows better than anyone how one villain can give the Defenders the justification they need.
Moonshine is clearly meant to be the first book in a series, and it's a promising start. Zephyr and Amir make compelling, likable protagonists, but they've each got a whole lot of growing to do. Zephyr has some serious drama to work through, from her monumental daddy issues to her conflicted feelings about Others. Sure, she agitates for vampires' rights, but she doesn't hesitate to stake one, either. As for Amir, he's charming and loves humanity, but like a child enjoys a toy. He doesn't take us seriously and consequently does something almost unforgivably selfish. But the two are so appealing both individually and as a couple, it'll be fun to watch them develop.
But what I like best about the book is Zephyr's outright refusal to be protected or cosseted. Amir is literally a prince, fully capable of sweeping her away from her life of night classes and poor sleep and borderline malnutrition. By the end of the book, he seems perfectly willing to do just that. But that's not the way Zephyr rolls. She won't be with someone who views human beings as playthings, so she solves Amir's big magical problem and then walks away. (Naturally, her solution ensures they'll meeting again in the next novel.) It's a pretty kick-ass move. She's equally willing to stand her ground against the forces of darkness and against the over-protectiveness of a well-meaning partner. The end of Moonshine is a good example of why I bristle when people describe Twilight as a romance. I read romances. I love romances. There are many, many paranormals with stronger, more compelling female characters than Bella Swan.
If there's an aspect of the story that gave me pause, it's the vampires. I think we're all in agreement they're reaching their saturation point in mass media. So it was a pleasant surprise to find Johnson has built an entire world of paranormal creatures with underused folklore. Amir's a djinn. Her roommate has the second sight. The local blood bank has a golem standing guard. Think about it: The city was crammed with immigrants in the 20s, and every single ethnic group brought its own body of legends and folkloric creatures, along the lines of American Gods. The narrative possibilities are endless.
Johnson does make a few early missteps with the setting. With historical writing, you want to see certain touches, like bathtub gin and cloche hats. But too many references start to feel downright pedagogical. The mentions of Tammany Hall corruption and Josephine Baker and the Model-T come fast and furious early in the book, and the effect borders on clunky. And there's really no good reason for Zephyr to be a singer on top of all her other activities. It seems to be little more than an excuse to name-check (admittedly wonderful) Irving Berlin songs. But Johnson quickly settles into the period, and the book's fun enough you're willing to forget the absurdity of a singing vampire suffragette.
This one's more True Blood than Twilight, and it's perfect if you've run out of Sookie Stackhouse books. Personally, I think I've found a new favorite urban fantasy series.