The Midnight Charter: Deep themes for YA, but weak world-building

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewschildren's fantasy book reviews David Whitley The Midnight CharterThe Midnight Charter by David Whitley

The Midnight Charter by David Whitley is an intriguing YA book with some deep ideas behind it, though it doesn’t quite meet its potential in terms of the story itself. The book is set in the city of Agora, a walled-off dystopia whose workings revolve around a barter-for-everything system: Food, art, labor, even emotions, are commodities of trade. The system has stood for some time, but as the story opens, the needed disruption (otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story) is about to occur. That disruption takes the form of two orphans and a secret document whose prophecy is about to unfold.

One orphan is Lily, who through the course of the novel begins to undermine the whole philosophy of Agora through the novel idea of “charity.” The other — sometimes set against, and sometimes acting in concert with Lily — is Mark, who through unexpected means becomes a powerful figure in the city’s economy.

The Midnight Charter’s success is mixed. The underlying themes and concepts are deep, casting a wider societal net than many YA books do, going beyond the simple “tyranny is bad” or “ignorance is bad” of many such allegorical books. The issues of class and capital and ethics give the book some real potential for originality.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t quite live up to that potential — mostly because we don’t really get a strong sense of the world and the way it works. There are some sharp moments, especially those dealing with the selling and buying of emotion, but more such moments layered throughout would have greatly improved The Midnight Charter.

Characterization is also a mixed bag. Lily is interesting but a bit single-minded, and often her passionate words and actions seem more crafted by the author than inherent aspects of the character. Mark is less interesting for several reasons. First, for most of the book he goes along with the society rather than against it as Lily does, so there is less room for conflict. Second, he is more passive than Lily, being acted upon rather than acting. Finally, he is more naïve than Lily (despite her idealistic crusade) and thus is played for a fool for much of the book. The reader will see this far earlier than Mark does, and will want to shake him and point out what is obvious. Though, to be fair, he is relatively young. If you keep repeating his age to yourself while reading, his blindness is less annoying.

The plot of The Midnight Charter is solidly interesting, but I wouldn’t label it compelling, and it’s marred by a rushed resolution and a relatively clumsy chunk of exposition at the very end. All in all, The Midnight Charter‘s original thematic focus keeps the reader (at least this reader) going to the end, but it fights itself along the way with some weak plot and characterization. A slightly weak three.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who’s been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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