There are days I go to collect the mail, and rather than the usual stack of bills, it's all requests from charities. Children's charities, health-related charities, feminist charities, religious charities. Each one is deserving, and each one shows real kindness to real people that I will never be able to help with my own two hands. There are always far too many groups asking for money, and there are moments when it feels like the small checks I send from time to time are simply too insignificant to make any difference at all.
Yet imagine a world with no charities at all. This is a world where there are no free lunches, no good deed without recompense. This is the kind of world where everything costs, and I mean everything. It's the sort of place where you can sell your own child to buy medicine for yourself, or even sell your own emotions for food and lodging. This is the city of Agora, and it's the setting for THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER, a compelling first novel. Mark and Lily are two such inhabitants of Agora, and each of them have been sold. When Mark wakes from an illness that nearly took his life, he discovers he is now owned by Dr. Theophilus. The quiet doctor lives in a strange old house owned by his grandfather, Count Stelli, an astrologer. Mark's presence in the house is a secret, as Count Stelli would never allow a plague survivor under his roof, and when the secret spills, it is Lily, the girl Count Stelli owns, who comes to his rescue. Lily wants to see the world, and when Stelli kicks out his grandson, she goes with the doctor, and Mark takes her place as Coun Stelli's servant.
The stars play a role in THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER, as Mark is trained by Count Stelli to make astrological predictions. He learns the constellations, studies the charts, and learns from his Master's gruff, cruel ways. On Agora Day, the celebration of the city's founding, Mark is called upon to make a prognostication before the crowds, and on that very same day, Lily decides to put a very daring plan into action. While Mark attempts to predict the future using rather unorthodox methods, Lily does something that she's never done before. She very deliberately and purposefully does something for the benefit of two others, and when they try to barter back the value of her kindness, she refuses. Her rebellious act of kindness starts a ripple effect inside of her, and it becomes large enough that it spills out into the people around her, and a revolution of attitude begins to take root. At the same time, Mark's predictions miraculously come true, and thus begins his meteoric rise to fame and power in Agora.
Mark becomes the star rising up into the heavens, and Lily, the star falling low enough to see the hurt and need in her city. Both stand poised to change Agora for good or for ill, and they are unaware they are being watched. A secret society exists in Agora, one that owns a document with contents that can drive the reader to madness. What is the Midnight Charter? The answer may be more than Mark or Lily can bear to know.
THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER does what all good speculative fiction does: it makes us examine our own world through the lens of another. This is a powerful debut, and one complicated enough to make both young adult and adult readers fall under its spell. There is a richness of place in Agora, and yet one that is quietly frightening (Miss Devine's shop is enough to make me shudder!). I have no idea where Mr. Whitley intends to take Mark and Lily once the book ends, but I do know I'm very interested to follow them into another book. THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER will likely challenge you, but in keeping with Agora's bartering system, it will give you a truly unique story in return.
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