I was excited to get and read The Midnight Lie, by Marie Rutkoski, just a month or so after it was published. I usually end up reviewing books quite a while after they come out, and find myself only adding to the reviews of others, rather than being among the first. Unfortunately, this book left me confused and a bit frustrated, and I don’t know for sure whether it’s the fault of the book itself or of my expectations going into it.
First of all, let me say that I admire the writing of Marie Rutkoski—it’s fluid, intelligent, lyrical, expressive. I greatly enjoyed her middle school fantasy series, The Kronos Chronicles. I also enjoyed The Winner’s Curse, first book of a trilogy for older teens, but somehow never got back to reading the other two books in the series—not for lack of interest, but simply because of the rapid progression of so many other young adult titles that stole my attention.
The cover notes to The Midnight Lie identify it as a book “set in the world of the Winner’s Trilogy,” and other readers on Goodreads note that it takes place between 10 to 20 years after the events portrayed in those books (although I don’t know where they came by this infor-mation). No one comments, however, on whether this story is closely identified with that one, and that is the source of my confusion.
On the surface, you could read this book as if it were the first in a brand-new series. I found the initial set-up of the three-tiered society in which it takes place—the High Kith, the Middlings, and the Half-Kith—to be less well defined or explained than I would have liked, but I kept reading, expecting it would become more clear. The mechanics of the three classes were disclosed—that there were things the Half-Kith, the people behind the Wall, were strictly forbidden from doing, using, eating, or wearing; that the Middlings had a few more privileges; and that the High-Kith were akin to the ruling class in The Hunger Games—frivolous, indulged, silly, extravagant, and without social conscience—and may possess a kind of magic unavailable to the other castes. But because of the plot device that no one in any of the three castes remembers their history, there is no explanation for how things came to be this way. The favorite expression of all castes in the face of questions is, “It is as it is,” and no one save the protagonist wonders about the why of anything.
When Sid, the “traveler,” is introduced to this island kingdom, it is obvious that this person must be the wild card element from the previous trilogy, present to shake things up. The romantic element certainly shakes up Nirrim, the protagonist, who has had a long-standing but reluctant relationship with one of her own caste but longs for something different. In Sid she definitely finds that, but has no idea what else will be opened up by her pursuit of novelty.
This is the point at which I became confused and frustrated. Is Sid actually a character that people who read the Winner’s Trilogy would recognize? Is there some nuance of which I am unaware but that would make more sense to those readers? I think a big part of my lack of enjoyment of parts of this book was that I kept wondering what I was missing by not having read those books. And there is the possibility that I was missing nothing, that this book “is what it is” and I thwarted my own pleasure by constantly second-guessing my knowledge instead of just going with what was actually on the page.
What was on the page was mostly fairly engaging. This is a coming-of-age story in the sense that the protagonist goes from being a rather downtrodden, even pathetically naive sort to finding her own agency, discovering her courage, and reaching for what she wants despite warnings to the contrary. The romantic entanglement is also satisfyingly real, although too short and too much interrupted by other concerns. But the part of the book that confounded my pleasure was the magical element. Although there is one dream or vision of Nirrim’s that telescopes later events, the explanation for the magic was for the majority of the book too vague, too diffuse, and left for way too long. The abrupt changes that took place within the last 25 pages were jarring in light of the previous narrative.
One could say that Rutkoski shouldn’t be penalized for that, because this is, after all, the first in a duology and will undoubtedly pick up and explain all of this in the second volume. But in terms of a story arc, I felt at first deprived and then rushed into the acceptance of something for which I didn’t feel properly prepared. As part of a series this book may well satisfy, but as a single book, I felt it had failings.
I did love the explanation for the title: The midnight lie is
“a kind of lie told for someone else’s sake, a lie that sits between goodness and wrong, just as midnight is the moment between night and morning.”
And the cover was a beautifully illustrated evocation of elements from the book.
I would probably recommend this book to older YA readers (high school and up), but I would really like for someone who has read both the preceding trilogy and this book to tell me what, if anything, I missed, so I could definitively say, Yes, you can read it without knowledge of The Winner’s Trilogy, or no, you absolutely have to have read those books.