The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey
Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis
ISBN: 0349002134 (Paperback)
Atom Books, Little Brown UK — 368 pages. Ebook also available.
If you love secret, hidden magical worlds that coexist with our real one, The Girl at Midnight is the book for you. With hidden rooms in the New York Public Library, a race of bird-people with gorgeous plumage (who live in tunnels underneath the streets of New York City), and a race of dragon-scaled people centered in rural Scotland, this book is filled with the whisper of a magic that we might just be able to glimpse if we only looked harder at the people around us.
Echo is a human girl who escaped her abusive home to live secretly in the New York Public Library when she was only seven. She was discovered and adopted not by human social services but by the Ala, an ancient, wise, and compassionate woman who is one of the leaders of the Avicen — a hidden race of people with feathers instead of hair and easy access to magic. Unbeknownst to the humans who live in New York City above them, the Avicen are locked in a vicious, centuries-old war with the Drakharen, a dragon-like race with the patterns of scales showing on their skin and magical powers of their own. Most young Avicen and Drakharen women and men don’t even know exactly why the war began, but over time, it has turned into a blood-feud in which both sides are painted as monsters worthy of genocide.
Echo, now seventeen and working as a thief for various magical employers, has always tried to ignore the war. But like it or not, she is about to become a key player.
Raised among the Avicen but never completely accepted by most of them, Echo is desperate to prove that she belongs. When the Ala asks her to go on a quest for the mythical phoenix (a creature that would have the power to end the war forever, but which would be apocalyptically dangerous in the wrong hands), she leaps at the opportunity. However, there are other leaders of the Avicen who are more brutal and ruthless than the Ala. They will do anything to get the phoenix for themselves, as will the Drakharen. Unbeknownst to Echo, the Drakharen prince is also desperate to find the phoenix. While his own motives may be pure, there are lethal plots brewing in his own family that will work against all of his hopes for peace.
As Echo sets out on a worldwide scavenger hunt for the phoenix, following a century-old pathway of clues, the richly-described settings leap gracefully between countries and continents. Grey seamlessly works magic into each new setting, from the New York Public Library to the Louvre to the Black Forest and more. For me, that perfect melding of the magical and the real, combined with the sheer fun of the virtual tourism, was my favorite part of the book. I occasionally wondered, as I read, why museums like the Louvre and the Met didn’t have more high-tech security, but it’s easy to ignore questions like that when the story itself is so enjoyable. (And who knows? Maybe their security really is that basic.)
Of course, Echo and the Drakharen prince soon come into conflict in their hunt for the phoenix — a conflict which turns into an uneasy alliance as they bring together a small group of Avicen and Drakharen men and women to join their quest. All of them have been raised to hate each other, but they are forced into a tenuous alliance as power-hungry armies from both sides of the war close in on them. Relationships form, betrayals mount, and Echo (despite having left behind an Avicen boyfriend at the beginning of her quest) comes to find the notorious Drakharen prince horrifyingly appealing after all.
This book is being cross-marketed in both the adult and the YA fantasy genres, much like Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy. Honestly, it’s hard not to be reminded of that trilogy, in which another human girl was raised by one group of supernatural creatures and caught up in their ancient war with another group. However, Taylor’s trilogy reveled in its gorgeous, lyrical language, while Grey’s Girl at Midnight is filled with fast, snappy banter and written at a breakneck pace. That difference in writing style gives the book a very different tone.
In the first half of the book, I sometimes found the nonstop banter and reflexive snark of the heroine to be slightly off-putting, as I wondered exactly how three-dimensional any of the characters really were. However, the emotions in the second half of the book ring true throughout, and all of the characters are explored in far more depth as events develop. The climax is intensely emotional as well as exciting, and the ending sets up a fascinating turn of events to be explored in later books.
If you’re a fan of secret worlds, fabulous locations, and fast-paced adventure, do try out The Girl at Midnight. It’s a fun opening chapter in an intriguing new series.