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.
The Agora Trilogy — (2009-2010) Ages 9-12. Publisher: In a society based on trade, where everything can be bought and sold, the future rests on the secrets of a single document — and the lives of two children whose destiny it is to discover its secrets. In this spellbinding novel, newcomer David Whitley has imagined a nation at a crossroads: misshaped by materialism and facing a choice about its future. He has brought to life two children who will test the nation’s values-and crafted a spellbinding adventure story that will keep readers turning the pages until the very end. For readers who love Philip Pullman, THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER combines great storytelling with a compelling vision — a many layered adventure with powerful and timely implications.