Thursday, April 12, 2012

Midnight Never Come


The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 3.5 stars
Publication: June 29, 2008 from Orbit Books
Premise: In the heart of London, Queen Elizabeth reigns in splendor; in the earth below her, Queen Invidiana rules the Onyx Court of the faeries with cruelty. Deven, a young courtier appointed to Elizabeth's guard, and Lune, a faerie who has fallen from Invidiana's favor, struggle to ferret information that will ferry them to the heights of their courts. But both the mortal court and the fairie Court are full of treachery....and ruled by capricious Queens who have bound themselves together in a pact for power. Intrigue runs deeper on both sides than anyone had guessed, and taking a step toward the other realm means risking the perils of both.
Warnings: a fairly nasty death scene? This one doesn't really have anything horrible.
Recommendation: Try this one out, especially if you can find it on sale; much though I don't love Amazon's ripple effect on local bookstores, it's pretty cheap there. If you like faeries or Elizabethan England, absolutely don't miss it. 

Why research and details make this one intriguing: 

The bond between Elizabeth's reign and Invidiana's power forms the heart of the novel, though the details of their pact take a while to become clear. The book opens on the young Elizabeth in the Tower of London receiving a visit from Invidiana, who promises her both safety from execution and elevation to the throne....provided Elizabeth elevates her to the faerie throne in return. Elizabeth's spymasters have spent years tracking all the players in the game. Walsingham, Deven's patron and head of the spymasters, eventually tells Deven that his information-gathering skills are up to snuff and that there's an unidentified player mixed in with courtiers and heads of state and diplomats, someone with major power influencing decisions in ways that they're still trying to understand.

Elizabeth herself is great, framed as moral and fallible and ruthless and brilliant all at once, good for her people and struggling on all sorts of levels. Her advisers and courtiers all want something, and that means that they're scheming to flatter her; she enjoys that in a lovely display of vanity, and she likes being surrounded by stylish people, but her wit is undeniably sharp. We see her switch among over a dozen languages mid-conversation both to show off and to make it impossible for any single person to follow everything that she's saying, and we know that she likes to dig up her own information and then use it to surprise her advisers when they're trying to hide things for their own ends. Seeing an older woman who paints herself to look young envying a young and beautiful woman is normally tiresome, but the way Elizabeth is bothered over the way she fades and Invidiana doesn't is both sad and chilling. Similarly, older women mourning lost relationships tend to be stereotypical, but Elizabeth is looking at things and realizing that since Invidiana is cold and alone, she could have easily manipulated the mortal realm to ensure that neither Queen had that sort of of happiness. 

The historical research shows without being intrusive, which is always a hard balance to strike. Everything from the arrangement of duties for the Gentleman Pensioners to the amount of debt everyone was in to look good at court to the way the Queen and her ladies moved often in part because castles got foul from having so many people in them just worked. Brennan doesn't hammer home any particular aspect of it, but all the threads of things like how Elizabeth actually acted in public weave a portrait of the time that acknowledges how things worked without becoming enraptured with the details. The faerie details blend well with mortal concreteness; the mortals divide the years up with quarters and holidays, but the faeries order events only in relation to each other and don't seem to have much of a grasp of time. Courtiers in Elizabeth's court are paid strict amounts but violate the laws about what sorts of rich fabric they can wear with ease, while Invidiana's people scramble for favor each day but can be cast out of favor instantly for wearing tiny fairy lights above their station.

This brings me to one of my favorite elements: the faerie imagery. Every author who writes about faeries, the Fae, the Daoine Sidhe, will tell you that they're beautiful in an unearthly way; very few of those authors actually make it interesting. The faeries in this book have the run-of-the-mill uncanny hair and eyes and aura of perfection, but they also dress in everything from cobwebs to rose petal armor to raven feathers and don't think anything of it. Their world is more beautiful but also more cruel, and that combined with the near-timelessness of the court really gives it that aura of danger that's essential to convincing Fae/faerie folk. A lot of writers go the cheap route with having the monarch torture someone in the throne room for several pages, but Brennan really builds a whole mood that makes the fear in the Onyx Court feel not only plausible but real in a way that makes you want to spy on people's clothes and rooms and knife-edged machinations.


Everyone's familiar with the idea of faerie food and drink tinkering with your mind or making it impossible for you to leave their land, but Brennan masterfully inverts that to provide a counterpoint. Faeries can only walk among signs of mortal faith, like the sound of church bells and the name of God, if they've recently eaten bread that mortals have left out to appease them. This is tricky, given that most bread is put out in rural areas when the Onyx Court is just below London, exactly where the faeries want to sneak in and gather information about the mess of politics. Ordinary undercooked bread is incredibly valuable, locked away in crystal coffers and traded for favors. It seems like a small detail, but it adds a wonderful depth to the intrigue games, especially since faeries would need mortal bread to escape to courts in other countries.

The mortal court seems less exciting at first, but the mortality makes it pulse with life; the Queen is aging, one false step can end a career at court, and the courtiers are often young enough to have not learned paranoia and bitterness in the way that Lune had to. For example, Deven in the early stages of the book is excellent, balancing youthful eagerness and naïveté with the ambition to have money and be important at court. He's clever and nervous, glad that Queen Elizabeth likes the sound of his French, and a little unnerved when his father suggests finding a wife so quickly. The whole package is charming, making him a note-perfect young man still trying to figure out how everything works and have some fun into the bargain. Within a few chapters he's part of the royal intelligence network, but we don't know what that entails besides listening for a while, and he's far from a tough-bitten secret agent. 

The red pen: 

We're shown that Invidiana was put under a curse many years ago, but it's just thought out very well. She was cursed for not fulfilling a bargain that her fellow faeries were making with some mortals, but she's never seen consenting to that bargain, or even being asked about it. Since she's the only one among her people who would be giving anything up (and living among mortals instead of with faerie wealth and youth surrounding her), the curse comes off as unjustified, honestly a bit stupid, and completely lacking in force since a mortal said angry words and we're not told whether he had magic or someone cast it for him or anything. That curse is supposed to be her motivation, and both its mechanics and the way it shapes her actions work, but anything that central needs to be justified and explained a lot better. If the reader is thinking "no way did she deserve that, this is ridiculous and I don't blame her for becoming evil later" about the primary antagonist, something is wrong.

Similarly, the reason for Lune's downfall in court is mismanaged. We're told very early on that she was sent to bargain with the unfamiliar powers in the sea to gain useful storms, and that her bargaining enraged Invidiana, sending her plunging back down. Exactly what she bargained is kept hidden from the reader, and even the production of her telling someone the (mostly) true version is brilliantly tantalizing; however, there's absolutely no tension when we're finally told. Lune is thinking and fuming essentially that "man, what did Invidiana want with what I gave up anyway" in a manner that sparks a revelation to step up the double-crossing mood of the novel. We're told and then on to the next topic in under a page, which just seems like cheating; don't tease at something fascinating for a few hundred pages, drop it in like it's a description of someone's clothes, and then not really mention it again. It's not hard to manufacture a reason for Invidiana's anger later on, but the process is full of guesswork and holes; for that much mystery, the truth needs to make more of an entrance.

Deven in the latter half of the book is odd, alternating between being a sympathetic character, bad at drawing basic conclusions, and someone who would do a lot better with a few slaps to the face. He jumps from unwilling to drink mead that faeries might have brewed just in case it enchants him even though they've already shown good faith to willing to spy on Lune trying to talk to an incredibly ancient and potentially dangerous spirit when he very clearly isn't invited and can't do anything because he has the magical potential of burnt toast.

Unfortunately, the Power of Plot (TM) seems determined to make him relevant every single step of the way. He does have some legitimately good moments based on his history as a spy, and he's brave and clever enough to make some discoveries even as an enchanted prisoner, but hearing over and over about how nothing can happen without the influence of both faeries and mortals still doesn't sound convincing when we don't hear why. He seems to need to be along, and destined to be with Lune, for fate to help out. Most faeries live at the fringes of the mortal world for entertainment or intrigue, but they've historically gotten along just fine on their own; mortals have also done well on their own without faerie intervention for years before the pact between the Queens. Elizabeth and Invidiana's bargain made the two worlds work more directly to each other's benefits, but the races helping each other out of altruism instead of self-interest seems to be more of a fuzzy ideal than the way things actually work.

Lune and Deven's romance is a subplot, which is lovely because it's frankly not that interesting after a while. She seduced him a bit under false pretenses, he's justifiably hurt but still likes her underneath the mask....and she's apparently also in love with him, which we've seen no evidence of until the masquerade falls apart. He's clearly in love with her, and she enjoys his company, but she's playing him for information while he dreams of marriage, and that makes their later deep romance feel unnatural and forced. Romances between mortals and Fae/elves are as old as fairy tales, popularly as old as Tolkein, and that means there have been so many convincing ones that the bar is quite high. 


As a whole, the novel does work; the romantic subplot is weak, especially given how bothersome Deven can be, but it fortunately retreats into the background, and the texture of the worldbuilding is really top-notch despite some of the more contrived "but why?" moments. It's hard to combine good research, interesting magic, and strong characterization, but Marie Brennan pulls it off with ease.

Prospects: Brennan has released three more books in the Onyx Court series, each set at a different period in history. The most recent and last, With Fate Conspire, came out in hardback last August. 


Enjoyed this? Try: 
~The Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs.The Fae take a little while to show up and move to center stage, but it's well worth it to see them manage the modern world with a sort of annoyed ease.
~I feel like I've read Fae in Elizabethan England more times than this, and I can't remember if I liked Mercedes Lackey's This Sceptre'd Isle or not, but it had some similar themes. Perhaps it'll get a review someday.

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