Carlos Ruiz Zafon's adult novels; The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game are two of my all-time favourite books. I was a little disappointed by his last Young Adult novel that was published here; The Prince of The Mist, so I tried not to expect too much of The Midnight Palace. Happily, I was not disappointed by this read at all. Set in Calcutta in the early part of the twentieth century, this is a brilliantly written mixture of adventure, magic and a little bit of horror. Probably best for older children as it contains some quite violent and gory scenes, it really is an exciting read. The setting of Calcutta is wonderful, gothic and mysterious and full of dark corners, strange old houses, corridors and ghosts. The characters are drawn so well, from the evil Jawahal who is so dark and menacing to the hero of the story Ben, the sixteen year old boy that Jawahal wants to destroy. This is a great adventure, with ghostly trains, strange old women and brave young heroes - a great read for the young and also for the not so young!
Like many, I found Carlos Ruiz Zafon through The Shadow Of The Wind, which remains to this day my favourite piece of fiction writing. I loved The Angel's Game, and The Prince Of Mists, which although it is written for a young adult readership, is a thrilling read that any adult can, and should enjoy.
Anyway... to The Midnight Palace. One of the delights of any book by CRZ is the characterisation. The heroes and heroines become your friends very quickly, and you genuinely care what happens to them. As I say, this is a trait of Zafon, and it makes even his most convoluted plots very engaging.
Another great talent of Zafon's is to create & build great mood and atmosphere, and give a real sense of place. I feel like I "know" Calcutta from this book, despite having never been there, just as I could traverse Barcelona, as I have done many times in my mind, reading his adult books.
Something I feel gives Zafons' books a consistency is his ongoing relationship with Lucia Graves, as translator. Despite being a fluent English speaker, Zafon has used her services to give a more coloquial touch to the language of all his books so far, and retaining the true feel of his original Spanish prose. I have discussed the books with a Spanish friend, and our understanding of the texts seems very close, so much credit to Ms Graves.
I realise I haven't haven't touched on plot, and I won't, because that is a great part of the joy in reading any book, but suffice to say, readers will not be disappointed in the twists & turns of The Midnight Palace, and a rattling good read will be had. It is a page turner, and if you start in the morning, you'll be finished at bedtime, even if you take breaks for meals and the toilet!
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.