I picked up The Midnight Queen at work last month purely on the strengths of its lovely cover and the two blurbs from Juliet Marillier that are written there. (Really, who can blame me for being unable to resist purple-on-purple arabesques behind a white woodcut-style cityscape topped with a woodcut-styled owl?)
Basically it’s a historical novel set in an alternative universe England and Brittany during the Regency era. In this world, you go to Merlin College at Oxford to study magic and upon arrival at your destination, you might choose to visit the Temple of Mercury to give thanks to the god for your safe journey.
The story opens as Merlin student, Gray Marshall, is injured during a clandestine errand gone wrong. He is blamed for the death of a fellow student and his tutor takes Gray away with him to an estate in Brittany. There Gray meets his tutor’s daughter Sophia. Gray and Sophia both become involved with rooting out a conspiracy that threatens the Master of Merlin College and the King himself.
Marillier is right: this book has very few first novel problems, but a couple of things could have been done a little more smoothly to my mind. First, the setting of the novel isn’t as clear from the text as it could be. Hunter uses the kind of language you might find in an Austen novel and she chooses archaic spellings like “connexion.” These are good indicators that you’re in the past, but I felt a bit at sea until the cover copy confirmed the time period of the story. The only other thing that felt a bit odd to me was a rather sudden plot development just past the middle of the book. Talking about it is tricky because it’s a massive spoiler, and, well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. I did have to take a week long break from this book about halfway along, so maybe it wouldn’t have seemed so sudden if I’d been able to read it without such a long pause. The plot point itself is fine, so that’s just a quibble, really.
Once I got hooked into the story, though, I couldn’t let it go back to the library unfinished. The plot moves along at a decent pace, but thankfully there is space in this 400+ page novel for the story to have good character moments and places where descriptions of the setting can come to the fore. For those of you burned out on series, you should know that although this book is the first in a series, it reads as a standalone. If you like Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories, you may well enjoy this book. It’s in a similar vein, but Hunter has made a creation that stands on its own.