Thursday, November 24, 2011

Sequels, prophecies ..and socialism 101

Is there a literary trope more tiresome than the prophecy? Just about every fantasy novel I’ve picked up these last few months has been about children variously marked, feared or heralded as ‘The One’ and mysterious strangers swooping in on them to convey them to their destiny. And honestly, shouldn’t ‘The One’ be picked for some reason greater than the accident of birth, or just plain being in a certain place at a certain time (aye, Boy who Lived, that means you.)? Meanwhile, what is it with prophecy-oriented stories and their inability to fit into a single tome, leaving us poor readers scrounging around bookstores and library waiting lists for Books 2 to gazillion? So I should have shied away from ‘The Midnight Charter’ which, apart from concerning itself with not one but two ‘The Ones’ is also clearly only part one of a series, meaning of course that a hundred narrative threads will be left dangling on the last page. As will I, waiting for Book 2.

Then again, when have I ever taken my own advice?

Well, for once that worked out alright since ‘ Midnight ..’ turned out to be a page turner, with a good story ,great pace and the kind of steadily darkening atmosphere that makes you simultaneously cringe and start reading faster . It is set in Agora, a grim medieval city ( imagine a very dark Lyra’s Oxford) that keeps its citizens walled in, where free trade is the reigning-and only- deity. There is no money in Agora, but anything can be bartered – emotions , children, lives (rather fittingly, murder is called ‘life theft'), even a woman’s voice. Children are considered property until they are legally emancipated at twelve, when they are left to fend for themselves, expected to improve their prospects either through marriage or slavery; the slightest hint of disapproval from their masters/ mentors could have them thrown into the streets and deemed unfit for employment. And all the while, the sinister and invisible Dictator does a Big Brother, tracking every move its denizens make.

Half dead from the plague, eleven year old Mark finds himself sold by his own father to Theophilus, the kind doctor tending to them. Nursed back to health by the doctor and Lily, a young orphan and employee of Theophilus’ grandfather, Count Stelli, Mark then begins his apprenticeship with the doctor. But fate has other plans for him; he finds himself being mentored by Stelli, a respected Agoran astrologer while Theophilus and Lily move out into the slums where they unleash a truly subversive weapon in the heart of materialistic Agora – philanthropy.

Mark narrowly escapes public humiliation after he discovers he is nothing more than a pawn in Stelli’s politicking. Rather serendipitously, Stelli’s life is destroyed while Mark inherits his wealth and becomes the toast of Agoran society, where he swiftly learns to be as unscrupulous and manipulative as his old employer. Meanwhile Lily tries to learn more about her mysterious origins even as she struggles to keep the shelter from being shut down .

Tides will turn, of course – it is only a matter of time before Mark falls out of favour with the powers that be, while Lily’s radical notion of giving away property for no reason other than the good of others, catches on and wins her many benefactors. But both children are unaware that they are part of a much larger game, overseen by shadowy figures, and that their fates are linked with that of Agora itself.

‘Midnight..’ does an interesting take on the age old Capitalism vs Socialism debate - Lily and Mark come to represent diametrically opposite points of view , and it is clear that some sort of confrontation lies ahead, even if they are allies at the end of the book. I liked the way Whitley’s characters develop, especially Mark – he goes from confused and scared waif to scheming and manipulative social climber, fuelled mostly by rage at his own abandonment. It is this angst that leads him to forge an unlikely bond with Cherubina, the infantile woman he almost weds in a marriage of convenience, and I would like to see their story evolve in future books in the series.

Rather like Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark materials’ trilogy – though nowhere as dense, pedantic or exhausting - this is a book about the death of ideas – a society based on free trade sounds ideal on paper - a …“ of a city where all are equal..where balance, barter and give and take were woven into its very heart and soul…society where value was judged by every individual and no one could force something out of nothing.” But it is, like all other great ideas, easily corrupted and how Lily and Mark either strengthen or destroy the idea of Agora remains to be seen.

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