The Midnight Charter by David Whitley (The Agora Trilogy: Book 1)

In the city of Agora, anything can be bought and sold. Even children are possessions until their twelfth birthday. Mark has been sold by his father, and Lily, an orphan from birth, has bartered for her life. Thrown together by chance, in the ancient tower of Count Stelli, they face an existence of poverty and servitude, unless they can find a way to break free.

But, unbeknown to Mark and Lily, they are being watched by the ruler of the city. Can they survive the traps and treachery that await them and discover the dark secret that binds them together? Their lives depend on this question: what is the Midnight Charter?

David Whitley, although still a young man, already has a fine pedigree. His first novel, written when he was only 17, was short-listed for the Kathleen Fidler Award. Three years later, at the still tender age of 20 he won the prestigious Cheshire Prize for Literature, becoming the youngest ever to do so. Whitley has talent, but he also has style and a gift for creating compelling fiction for children and young adults.

The Midnight Charter is part conspiracy theory, part fantasy, and opens with tragedy. The plague is ravaging the poorer quarters of the city of Agora and we are introduced to Mark as he nears death. The narrative here deals with the loss of a parent and also the fear of abandonment; two issues that will unsettle and fascinate younger readers in equal measure. The excerpt below is taken from the very beginning of the book and shows how Whitley instantly grabs the reader's attention and emotions.

“Being dead was colder than Mark expected.
When his mother had told them all tales of the afterlife, she had drawn him close into her woollen skirts and painted a picture of another city, one where it was always summer. A world where the river glowed clean and bright, a land where all debts were forgotten. Mark had trusted every word, until he awoke in a stone cell, shivering and wrapped in a shroud.”
The Midnight Charter: Chapter One – The Staircase

Following on from this impressive beginning, the foundations are further laid with great skill and aplomb. Mark, in light of his situation and predicament, becomes and instantly sympathetic character that the reader will really feel for. We then meet Lily. Lily's life has been no easier than Mark's; an orphan from birth, she worked as a bookbinder until her fingers became too large for the work and was forced to barter herself into a new position. The destinies of these two wonderful characters are intertwined and their relationship is the cornerstone of which the story is built.

By having the story told from two perspectives Whitley allows the reader to see the city of Agora from two very different viewpoints – Mark's life becomes that of the fortunate wealthy while Lily's work with the poor shows her an entirely different city. This allows for excellent contrast.

There are a couple of moments when the pieces don't fit together absolutely perfectly. For example - Mark is used as a pawn in a political game between two high-profile citizens of Agora; the way that this plays out requires just a little too much suspension of belief. This did detract slightly from what was otherwise a very credible novel.

The Midnight Charter is a thoroughly enjoyable book. There is an 18th century feel and the city of Agora, where money does not exist, is wonderful in its creation. Comparisons are difficult but there is a period-feel reminiscent of Marcus Sedgwick's The Book of Dead Days.

This is a book that we highly recommend and we certainly look forward to David Whitley's future works.

David Whitley was born in 1984 and graduated from the University of Oxford with a double First in English Literature and a passion for writing children's fiction. In 2005 David appeared on BBC2's University Challenge where he was a member of the winning Corpus Christi team who beat all competitors to become Series Champions. David currently lives in Cheshire and is working on his second novel.

9/10 Compelling fiction with delightful use of contrast.

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