The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey (YA)

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Reviewed by Jodie

A pretty cover, a pickpocket heroine and a quest for a Firebird? ‘Sounds cute,’ I thought as I paid for The Girl at Midnight. I was sure it would make the perfect summer reading fling, and when I was finished I’d sigh with satisfaction before moving on, clearing a space in my bookshelves. I was not going to get involved with this book; it was just a bit of fun.

A month later, after reading Melissa Grey’s book in three sittings – yeah, I’m still not moving on. When will I learn that books which are supposed to be ‘just a bit of fun’ have a way of quickly worming their way into my permanent collection? The Girl at Midnight and I have bonded and I need the next book bad. Like really bad. Roll on June 2016.

As you can guess from the book’s blurb, part of the reason I got so attached is Echo, a master thief heroine who lives in The New York Public Library. Echo, a human runaway taken in by the supernatural bird-like Avicen, agrees to track the Firebird; a mysterious entity that supposedly holds the key to ending the Avicen’s centuries long war with the magical dragon-like Drakharin. Owing her life and her love to one of the Avicen council, the Ala, Echo doesn’t think twice before setting off on a dangerous trip that involves battling Drakharin guards, damp prison cells and various impenetrable buildings. Echo is a smart character, quick with a quip and a plan, and she’s a lot of fun to follow around. She also possesses a vulnerability which off-sets her light personality, adding weight to her story. Readers who struggle with emotions and trust issues will find much to relate to in Echo’s journey.

The close familial relationship between Echo and the Ala is what first tipped me the wink that the rest of The Girl at Midnight was going to be as special as its heroine. The fact that the first important positive relationship the book presents is between two women is not exceptional; other stories include important relationships between women. Still, it appears in the midst of a storytelling (and general) culture which often tries to push the idea that women just don’t like each other very much. I enjoyed seeing the two respond so affectionately and familiarly with each other:

The Ala tutted, but the sound was more pleased than disappointed. “I don’t understand your obsession with birthdays. I’m far too old to remember mine.”

“I know and that’s why I assigned one to you,” Echo said.’

If you think that’s sweet then the prologue, where the Ala first meets a young Echo, is going to undo you.

The Girl At Midnight continues to centre female friendship when, several chapters later, the story introduces Ivy, a young Avicen orphan. Ivy and Echo’s friendship is important to both girls, and the crucial nature of their relationship is continually reasserted as the book progresses. It’s telling that Ivy ends up being part of the rag tag band that goes off questing with Echo, rather than Rowan, Echo’s boyfriend. There are practical storytelling reasons that explain why Ivy, not Rowan, goes with Echo; for one, the book needs time to set up another love interest without interference. Still, I like to think that the book sends Ivy instead of Rowan because Grey sees the need for stories about female friendship and wants to make sure Ivy is seen as a key player in Echo’s life.

Grey’s book does still have its troubles with female relationships. One of the Avicin villains is Ruby, a girl obsessed with Echo’s boyfriend Rowan. It’s cool to build in female villains – Tanith, the Drakharin villain is a glorious character with some surface similarities to Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender. And conflict between women is just as much of a reality as conflict between people of any gender. Still, I’m not a fan of stories that make female battles all about a man. One point of difference between The Girl at Midnight and many other stories is that it at least handles this type of conflict with some class. The book doesn’t let Echo devolve into spitting back sexist jokes about Ruby; Echo’s hatred of the girl is totally informed by how Ruby has ill-treated her.

Before I close this review, I have to talk about Dorian, the one-eyed Captain of the Drakharin guard. When the book opens Dorian is in love with Caius, the Drakharin Prince who saved his life in battle. Although Caius treasures Dorian as a friend and a Captain, he doesn’t feel the same way – Caius is a straight character in mourning for the love of his life. I’ve read enough fantasy novels to be worried by how The Girl At Midnight would resolve this development. There were a lot of common, horrifying paths it could stumble down. It was possible Dorian would end up “heroically” dead. He might continue to pine stoically while Caius moved on to a new woman. Or he just might become a traitor in the camp, soured by Caius’ growing relationship with Echo.

And then Jasper turned up; thieving, hard hearted, gorgeous Jasper with his Avicen peacock plumage and an eye for beautiful things. It looked like a romance was on as Jasper set out to tease Dorian away from Caius’ side. Even then, I was worried. There were a lot of sharp swords flying around in Jasper and Dorian’s vicinity, and novels have a habit of mistaking a poignant death for gay romance. I remained worried right up until the end of the book when I breathed a sigh of relief. No dead gay characters! No more pining for straight guys! Only kissing and blushes and shy declarations. On top of that Dorian and Ivy start to forge a bond of trust and forgiveness as Dorian atones for the way he treated her when she was a Drakharin prisoner. Romance, friendship and character development – what more can a reader ask for?

The one major problem with Grey’s book is that the fantasy world isn’t particularly well defined. Why are the two major players in this ancient magical war humanoid versions of birds and dragons? Why do the Avicen rule particular parts of the world? Why did the Drakharin decide to hide from humans rather than destroy their civilisation and reclaim their lands? This last question is especially baffling when you consider the extent of Tanith’s joyful bloodlust and the capabilities of her Firedrake army. Maybe these questions will be answered in the coming books, but for now The Girl at Midnight just kind of shrugs its shoulders. This may annoy readers used to more rigorously outlined fantasy worlds.

But maybe you’ll be just as won over by the book’s charm, pace and characters as I was. Maybe you’ll dig in for the long haul, end up caring way too much about Echo, Ivy, Jasper, Dorian and Caius, and follow the trilogy to its conclusion. Read the book then come back and raise you hand if I’ll see you in 2017 for the final installment.

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The Girl at Midnight (Atom: London, 2015). 978-0349002132, 368pp., paperback.

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