I read this for the first time a rather long time ago, probably 2008 or 2009, shortly after it came out, and I remember that I loved it. Years later, I read A Natural History of Dragons, and it took me far, far longer than it should have to put together that they were written by the same woman. In my defence, this is in no small part because they’re really rather different things. And, unfortunately, only one of them has my current adoration.
Unlike a lot of things I’ve soured on as I’ve got older, I do still like Midnight Never Come, but I definitely don’t feel the passion for it I recall having the first time around. My first instinct as to why is “well, the romance is really just quite… prominent”. But that’s always been a thing that has bothered me, so I can’t imagine past me would let it slide where current me would not. If I’m truly honest, I think all it is is that past me was a lot less discerning and pernickety about the quality of writing in her books, and as I get older, I just get more and more grumpy and… I’m going to go with “discerning”, but others may find other adjectives more appropriate.
That all being said, I did still enjoy it, and I believe I gave it four stars on Goodreads. For all that it isn’t her best work, Marie Brennan is a fantastic author, and that’s still true and visible. Where it mainly comes to the fore is in how she is capable of handling two sets of court politics in a relatively non-hefty book, without either of them ending up feeling shallow or underthought. The book is set in Elizabethan London, following a minor gentleman in Elizabeth’s court, trying to gain advancement by spying for Walsingham, and a lady in the equivalent faery* court lying beneath London’s surface, trying to work her way back into favour after performing less than ideally on a previous assignment for her queen. The book does an excellent job with both of providing believable intrigue, and with creating a balance where it feels like the two courts do mirror one another. Brennan doesn’t go over the top in creating elaborate schemes, but she does clearly put the thought in to create a political landscape that is conceivably convoluted. It couldn’t all be too easy, or it wouldn’t be realistic either. Likewise, the people involved (the human ones) are plausibly intelligent and plausibly Elizabethan, especially when it comes to what they will and won’t believe. Brennan hasn’t just transposed a modern mindset onto Michael Deven, her protagonist, and the things he is willing to accept are far more appropriate for the time he comes from.
What she also does very well is invoke existing fairy mythos, and create something new and interesting with it. It has the nice balance of familiar and inventive, and works well within the rules we know about fairies – the hatred of iron and religious symbols/language – to create something meaningful to the plot.
That being said, going back to my earlier comment… the romance really is rather prominent. Some of it is obvious right from the start of the book, and thus sort of dismissable because you know what you’re getting. But, slight spoilers, the resolution of the book does rather hinge on some romantic stuff, and I think it’s a little forced, and quite cheesy. It goes a little against the otherwise quite grounded tone (as far as it can be grounded when set in the fantastical). Between this and the slightly less artful writing than I know her to be capable of later, it does make it a less than perfect book. But it’s not bad, either.
I didn’t know at the time I first read it that this was (or was going to be) part of a trilogy. I’m keen to read the sequels now, and see how they compare, especially as I’m led to believe they’re set some time later, chronologically. I hope her grasp of later history is as good as it is here, though, because her real talent very much is in creating a realistic setting, not so much in her geography or language, but in the feel of the book. And it’s really satisfying.
Given that I’ve read a fair bit of fairy-related stuff, this is a familiar genre for me, and I think I’d happily say this sits pretty high up in it. It nudges a bit toward the YA end in its portrayal of relationships, but is otherwise really successful in world building and using the existing mythos in an intuitively satisfying but inventive way. Maybe not the absolute best, but a very good example. And it has survived my changing opinions far better than a lot of other books, so some kudos there too. All in all, a nice (if easy) read, and a happy little feeling of nostalgia.
*This is their choice of spelling, and you know what, I’m not going to nitpick. Elizabethan spelling is weird anyway, so I’m just choosing to roll with it. That being said, I have a lot of thoughts about why various authors choose their different spellings of this, and most of them aren’t particularly complimentary. But that’s probably a rant for another time.