The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“Gray’s deep talent for magick has won him a place at Merlin College. But when he accompanies four fellow students on a mysterious midnight errand that ends in disaster and death, he is sent away in disgrace—and without a trace of his power. He must spend the summer under the watchful eye of his domineering professor, Appius Callender, working in the gardens of Callender’s country estate and hoping to recover his abilities. And it is there, toiling away on a summer afternoon, that he meets the professor’s daughter.
Even though she has no talent of her own, Sophie Callender longs to be educated in the lore of magick. Her father has kept her isolated at the estate and forbidden her interest; everyone knows that teaching arcane magickal theory to women is the height of impropriety. But against her father’s wishes, Sophie has studied his ancient volumes on the subject. And in the tall, stammering, yet oddly charming Gray, she finally finds someone who encourages her interest and awakens new ideas and feelings.
Sophie and Gray’s meeting touches off a series of events that begins to unravel secrets about each of them. And after the king’s closest advisor pays the professor a closed-door visit, they begin to wonder if what Gray witnessed in Oxford might be even more sinister than it seemed. They are determined to find out, no matter the cost.”
This is one of those books that I really wanted to be squeeing about, but instead I ended up at the level of moderate enthusiasm. There’s certainly a lot to like in this book, with lots of magical conflicts and esoteric research on tap. Is there treason at the highest levels? What plots are hiding in the seemingly innocuous actions of Gray’s professor? And what mysteries surround Sophie, and how to they relate to the strange doings that are going on?
What I found a bit tedious was how long the action takes to get moving on certain fronts. After jumping right in with Gray’s banishment to Callender’s estate, the narrative lingers there for a good little while getting Sophie and Gray acquainted. A helter-skelter dash away from the estate leads into a long period of lying low and planning future actions. It’s possible that these sections could have been condensed a bit, but it’s also possible that this is just what I’m predisposed to want in a fantasy novel.
It’s ironic that although I wanted a bit less talking, I would have loved to have a bit more information on how this world diverges from actual history. There are hints that things were at least nominally the same up through Henry VIII, but then things change, and currently it’s Henry XII on the throne. Given that the royal family plays a central role in the story, I can’t help but want to know where the timeline changed.
Minor quibbles aside, this novel should appeal to those who like their fantasy grounded in a world based on hard fact but definitely carrying that touch of the fantastic. Magic isn’t the be-all and end-all of the plot, and is in fact not used in any great capacity aside from a few scenes near the book’s end. The “how” of magic isn’t as important here as the mere fact of magic’s existence. I will say, though, that the foundations of magic that are sown throughout the book come into play in a big way in the book’s climax.
I think this novel’s biggest strength is in its characters. I especially liked Sophie, whose take-no-nonsense attitude is fun to watch. It’s also interesting to see how her strengths build from what she perceives as her weaknesses—and in many ways, she is a flawed heroine, although not through any fault of her own. She’s a good match for Gray, who also deals with some issues that cripple his abilities but whom we see grow beyond those limitations as well. Of the minor characters, Gray’s sister and brother-in-law stood out for me, as did Henry XII (although that last one doesn’t show up much until very near the end, he’s quite memorable).
Although I personally think that the novel could have used just a smidgeon of tightening, The Midnight Queen delivers enough action and intrigue that it should be a hit with readers. I’m interested to see if Hunter will be continuing with this story, and if so, where she takes it next.