Top critical review
Ghostly story that does not reconcile its elements
on 2 February 2012
The story starts in May 1916 in Calcutta with newborn twin babies being chased by a murderer and ending up being separated when their mother is murdered. The boy, Ben, is brought up in St. Patrick's Orphanage, while the girl, Sheere, is brought up by her maternal grandmother. When they turn 16, the orphans will be turned out onto the world, and Ben will find himself sent back into the waiting arms of the assassin. The twins, Ben and Sheere, are reunited when both are about to turn 16.
With touches of the climax of Harry Potter's final book wherein the soul of Jawalah seeks a human child, though the two books were contemporaneous, THE MIDNIGHT PALACE is a horror story with older teens in its sights. This is felt because it is not a happy resolution, and neither is much of the story pleasant reading - with "pleasant" referred to in the sense of giving comfort - which fare for younger readers is usually given to. The number and graphic details of murders in the book, the heaps of gore and violence, the repeated fiery, phantasmic images (of a train, bridge, a man with a set of fiery fingernails), a pool of blood from a 16-year-old corpse, the smashing of teenagers into every conceivable surface, the vicious (yet inconceivable) villain - all make for an older readership, and yet one that I feel won't be satisfied with all the implausibilities.
The latter includes: the changing rules of how phantoms behave, for example the phantom train sometimes goes through real buildings like a true ghost train and at other times smashes into and burns bridges, yet seven human beings can sit in and run through its compartments; the villain is a phantom who can disappear through objects yet can push human beings around.
Then there are the improbabilities in the plot, which seems wound up and repetitive, and could have been done and dusted in half the book's length. The villain, Jawahal, hunts down and hurts the children's grandmother and headmaster, but leaves the children intact for most of the book - strange. It is left for the last few pages for him to wreak real damage, and then to have done so seems unnecessary and pointless to the plot. The story never answers why the Firebird is so unique or special that Ben and Sheere's father, Chandra Chatterghee (shouldn't it more correctly be, Chatterjee?) gave up his ideals to join up with the homicidal English soldier, Colonel Sir Arthur Llewellyn. It was yet another plot hole.
The parts of the tale describing the desire of colonised India to free itself, and the group of orphans finding companionship in a group they call the Chowbar Society, I found heart-warming and entertaining.