Tuesday, 16 June 2009
The Midnight Charter - David Whitley
This is an ambitious debut novel from a very intelligent author. David Whitley was on the wining University Challenge team in 2005 where he represented Oxford's Corpus Christi, and since graduating he has been working on his dream - a children's book.
The plot of The Midnight Charter centres on two children, Lily and Mark, in a world where before the age of 12 children are possessions and can be sold or traded by their parents. Once 12 they then have to earn their own way in the world. The twist is that in Agora there is no money, instead people must trade or barter to survive. The trades can be material goods or personal skills but everything has a worth. Unsurprisingly society is just as unequal as it is when hard currency exists, if you have nothing to trade you are considered a worthless burden. Charity does not exist.
Mark and Lily are thrown together by chance and just as a friendship forms they are parted suddenly. Their lives are then very different but completely interwoven. Both children are faced with danger as one tries to work with the system and one tries to alter it. This plot thread is interesting, well thought out and in general the characterisations are convincing and the story really comes to life.
The plot becomes more convoluted when just over half way through the Midnight Charter, and ultimately destiny, come into the story. I read to the end of the book with interest but by the end I wasn't quite sure that I had understood all of it.
I found myself having to frequently reread complete chapters as it became clear that I had either missed something or not understood the point. This isn't really a problem, more a lesson to slow down, but it did interrupt the flow of the story and it became disjointed, especially at high action points. There were so many ideas mooted that I am sure that again I missed something vital.
Visually the book is a joy to own, the cover is inviting and then each chapter is framed by a lovely line drawing that has been inspired by the front cover. The alternating chapter viewpoints also keep the story moving even if it did confuse me occasionally as I couldn't quite work out who's story we were following all of the time.
It sounds from all of this that I disliked the book and that isn't entirely the case. I was intrigued by it throughout. The ideas made me think, the touches of magic were clever and more importantly Whitley has thought out his world very cleverly, everything he writes stays true to his imagined world. But, and it is a big but, I also felt stupid while I was reading this book, something that Philip Pullman avoids in his idea filled novels.
My biggest gripe with the book becomes clear at the end: when you get to the last chapters it becomes clear that this is start of a series. Ultimately The Midnight Charter ends up feeling like a prologue as it ends just as the action starts.
I enjoyed the book enough that I will be looking out for anything else that David Whitley writes, but I won't be counting down the days until it appears. I wouldn't be surprised if Whitley goes on to write long detailed books for adults but in the meantime he has some interesting ideas for those brave or clever enough to read them.