Ever since she was a little girl, Echo has lived among the Avicen, a magical, birdlike race who live underneath New York City. As a human, Echo doesn’t quite fit in with the others, as some of them delight in reminding her. But she makes herself useful running errands — which sometimes include theft — for the Ala, the wise, kind, powerful Avicen who took her in after she ran away from an abusive family. With the help of a magic powder called “shadow dust,” Echo is able to travel enormous distances in a matter of seconds to carry out her shady missions.
When the Ala tasks Echo with finding a mysterious creature called the firebird, Echo quickly finds out that she isn’t the only one who’s after it. The firebird is supposed to have the power to end the brutal, ongoing war between the Avicen and another race known as the Drakharin. But, the Ala tells Echo, “The nature of that end is up to whoever controls [the firebird].” So Caius, the Dragon Prince of the Drakharin, also wants desperately to get his hands on the firebird — especially as his bloodthirsty sister, Tanith, is committed to continuing the war instead of trying to end it.
Echo, Caius, and their respective friends soon find themselves participating in an uneasy alliance to try to find a creature they’re not even sure how to describe, for reasons they can’t fully understand. They not only have to learn to get along with their sworn enemies, but Echo has to face the misunderstanding of those on her own side, some of whom believe she’s betraying her own adopted race.
“The Girl at Midnight,” Melissa Grey’s debut novel, is the first in a projected series about Echo and her adventures (the second book comes out in June 2016). There are some good ideas here, and some strong characters, particularly the plucky, fiercely loyal Echo. Grey is a talented writer with a knack for creating fresh and striking imagery. She also does a good job of handling the issues of loyalty, identity, and betrayal that arise as the characters have to recognize that there are good and bad on both sides of the bitter ongoing conflict, and dealing with the trauma that comes with taking a life even in a noble cause.
Unfortunately, Grey also has a tendency to overwrite. The action tends to grind to a halt while she’s minutely describing a facial expression or a thought process or an article of clothing, and the requisite witty banter among her characters can drag on until it feels more stale than witty. In particular, as happens in so many YA novels, she lavishes an inordinate amount of time on every single sensation and feeling that her two lead characters experience in each other’s presence. After pages and pages of blushes and sparks and prickles and tingles and stifled longings, the sexual tension just doesn’t feel all that tense anymore. (It might be cause for concern that there’s a large age gap between the characters, but given that Caius and other Drakharins are hundreds of years old, it’s hard to take any reference to age very seriously or realistically.)
That’s not all the sexual tension there is. It’s made clear early on Caius’ captain, Dorian, has unrequited romantic feelings for him, which he has tried unsuccessfully to hide. Before the book is over, however, an openly gay Avicen friend of Echo’s named Jasper is hitting on Dorian. There’s a good deal of crude humor here — not explicit, but crude (of the “don’t whip out your sword, we haven’t known each other that long” variety). Things get particularly twisted — in every sense of the word — when Caius, greatly in need of Jasper’s help in their quest, reluctantly agrees to sell Dorian to Jasper if they succeed. It’s not stated outright that Jasper wants Dorian as a sex slave, but it’s very strongly implied.
This plot thread was left dangling at the end of the book, but will presumably be picked up in the next one. My guess is that, since Dorian seems to be transferring his romantic interest to Jasper anyway, they’ll be well on their way to a relationship when this unsavory deal will come to light and mess it all up. But given Grey’s gift for handling other kinds of moral and ethical conflicts, I find it disappointing that she would treat a serious issue like sex trafficking so lightly. Perhaps it will be given the weight it should be in the next book.
Truthfully, though, I didn’t find myself looking forward to that one. The plot of “The Girl at Midnight” felt rather slight on the whole, and the ending anticlimactic. That plus the content issues (there’s also profanity and some violence, though it’s rarely graphic) make it difficult to recommend the book.
Image copyright Ember.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.