Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, November 11, 2019

Monday, November 11, 2019: Maximum Shelf: The Midnight Lie

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR): The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR): The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR): The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR): The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski

The Midnight Lie

by Marie Rutkoski

In Marie Rutkoski's darkly enchanting The Midnight Lie, Nirrim, a young woman who has visions she doesn't understand, lives in the impoverished center of a dazzling, magical city.

Encompassed by a wall, in the middle of the city of Ethin, is the Ward. There live the Half Kith, ruled by restrictions that dictate what they are allowed to do (very little), wear (only drab colors), make (products to be used by the upper Kiths) and eat (no food that is "tangy or sour or spiced or sweet"). Nineteen-year-old Nirrim is one of the many disenfranchised who live in this place of "dull colors" and few liberties. She works for tavern-owner Raven, who, as a Middling, is "allowed to come and go beyond the wall," leaving the Ward--which Half Kith are not allowed to do--and entering the Middling city that surrounds the Ward in its own enclosed ring. By all appearances, Raven is a businesswoman held in high esteem. The Half Kith's high regard of her, though, is more about her side job: she and Nirrim create forged passports. Nirrim believes they are helping the Half Kith in the Ward to escape, perhaps even get past the Middling city's wall and enter the opulent coastal home of the High Kith, where "teardrops of hail spangle the pink sand beaches."

On the day of the moon festival, Raven sends Nirrim to acquire more materials for fake passports. As Nirrim walks the "puzzle of skinny streets that turn an ice wind into pure malice," she keeps an eye out for the militia who, were they to arrest her, would make her pay a tithe. If she is lucky, her hair would be cut or her blood drawn; others lose eyes, limbs, even their lives. It isn't, however, the militia that gets Nirrim in trouble. An Elysium bird, the "gods' bird," has gotten loose in the Ward. "They say that the song of the Elysium bird makes you dream.... that these dreams remedy the past, take the sting out of memories." Everyone in the Ward is convinced they can capture the bird and make a profit from it. But it is Nirrim who catches the bird. "It occurred to me that the bird wanted me as much as I wanted it," Nirrim thinks upon hearing its song. "It knew I was coming." She imagines its "short, inky beak. Its tiny emerald eyes," though she has never actually seen an Elysium bird in real life. She is confused--this feels like a memory more than a vision--but she chalks it up to her lifelong torment of seeing and experiencing things that aren't truly there. The Elysium bird finds her and, unable to kill the beautiful creature for profit, Nirrim gives it to the militia. They arrest her and sentence her to a month in prison and a blood tithe.

In prison, she meets Sid, a "traveler." Sid, who is serving time for taking "a lord's lady to bed," is in Ethin for adventure. According to Sid, the island is not on any map: "My people have been seafarers for generations.... How is it that we discovered it only earlier this year?" Sid, flirting all the while, asks Nirrim questions--Why do some people live behind a wall? Why a tithe?--forcing Nirrim to fully contemplate the answers. Why are the Half Kith forced to live colorless, flavorless lives? What is the purpose of the tithes they pay? And, Sid tells her, there's something particularly strange about Ethin: magic. "Magic that allows you to create fabulous things, like pocket watches that don't tell the time but rather tell you the emotions of the people standing around you." Over their few days together, Nirrim starts to fall for the self-declared licentious Sid and feels the beginnings of understanding taking root: "They say that there was magic in this city when the gods still walked among us. That some people were god-touched. They had the favor of those beings, and a shadow of their power." With Sid's help, Nirrim will escape the Ward to delve into her city's past--which is surprisingly interwoven with her own.

Though it's a return to the world of the Winners Trilogy, Rutkoski's bewitching The Midnight Lie--the first of a duology--stands firmly on its own. The city of Ethin is a mysterious place, all the more interesting for its stark social divisions and hidden history; Rutkoski further exposes these chasms and secrets through an LGBTQ lens. Nirrim makes for a fascinating protagonist: she's extremely rational despite the vivid fantasies she sees of another existence, deeply empathetic although she rarely receives comfort herself. Sid and the mission to learn the mysteries of Ethin add color and passion to Nirrim's life, but she retains her individual voice and uncommon way of thinking throughout. The Midnight Lie is unsettling and thrilling, the world intricate and purposeful, and Nirrim a protagonist readers will surely find enthralling. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $18.99, hardcover, 368p., ages 14-up, 9780374306380, March 3, 2020

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR): The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski

Marie Rutkoski: A Different Kind of Romance

(photo: Tobias Everke)

Marie Rutkoski is the author of the Winner's Trilogy, the Kronos Chronicles and The Shadow Society. Rutkoski is a professor at Brooklyn College, where she teaches Renaissance Drama, children's literature and creative writing. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Midnight Lie, the first in a planned companion duology to The Winner's Trilogy, will be available from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 3, 2020.

What made you want to return to the world of the Winner's Trilogy?

It was a combination of wanting to know what happened after the events of the Winner's Trilogy (The Midnight Lie is set about 20 years following the end of The Winner's Kiss) and what happened before. The main character of The Midnight Lie, Nirrim, lives on an island that has forgotten its history and has many strict laws that people follow without examining why. But readers of The Midnight Lie will notice that Nirrim's culture bears striking resemblances to a prominent culture in the Winner's Trilogy.

Why did you want to tell such a different story from those we've seen in this world before?

Really, what I wanted was to write a different kind of romance. A reader at an event for The Winner's Kiss approached me and said that she loved the character of Roshar (a young man who is gay, smart, dangerous and adores giving Arin a hard time), but that she wished there were more fantasy novels featuring queer women. There are of course many wonderful novels that offer that. Her point was that she wanted more. And so do I! I love f/f romance and when I began imagining a new book, I felt like a queer romance was the only kind I wanted to write.

Why did you want to write about magic?

In some ways, the question of magic was already there in the Winner's Trilogy. Arin, for example, believes he has been blessed by the god of death and hears that god in his mind. I was careful to have plausible deniability when writing this; it is entirely possible (and this is what Kestrel says) that Arin is so damaged that he has conjured a helpful fantasy as a way to cope. Maybe Arin is aided by a supernatural force. Maybe it's all in his head.

The Midnight Lie came partly from these questions: What if it's not all in Arin's head? What if magic did exist in this world once? Why was it there? Where did it go? Could it return?  

You offer nuanced portrayals of subjugation, domination and injustice throughout the Winners Trilogy and in The Midnight Lie. Why did you want to continue exploring these themes? How did you make sure to connect with these ideas respectfully and honestly?

The Midnight Lie is in some ways inspired by one aspect of our current society: growing inequality. There have been several economic and sociological studies showing that the difference between rich and poor in this country is larger now than it has been in a very long time. The last time we've seen such a disparity, in fact, was right before the Great Depression.

The world of The Midnight Lie is one where those who have more have even more, and those who have less have even less. Wealthy people get to do whatever they want--not just with their wealth, but also with social rules. You could say that this is an allegory for being socially and economically disadvantaged in our own society.

But Nirrim's struggle isn't just with her material situation. She is also someone who is trapped in psychological ways, and has been so neatly trapped that she doesn't even see the trap. She doesn't see, in the beginning of the book, the toxicity of many of her relationships. I think that when you're in a toxic relationship (no matter what kind, in terms of family, romance, friendship) it can be very hard to see it, because you're in that relationship for a reason. You care about that other person, and you care about believing that your relationship is a good one, because who are you if it isn't? My hope is that I have thoughtfully portrayed this difficulty, and Nirrim's coming to understand the true nature of some of her relationships. 

A thing I particularly loved about Nirrim is that she is without guile and wholly trusting of others, even though she doesn't trust herself. What was it like to write this character?

My books are character-driven and some of why I wrote Nirrim the way that I did is that I wanted to write a character very different from Kestrel. Kestrel is not just smart, but also extremely knowledgeable about how people manipulate each other. Nirrim is intelligent, but her life experience has been people trying to blunt that intelligence, so there is much she doesn't see or understand. But I think we all know what it's like to come to an unpleasant awareness about someone that we once trusted. I wanted to capture that in Nirrim. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

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