Wednesday, 17 August 2016

'Burning Midnight', by Will McIntosh

Title: Burning Midnight
Author(s): Will McIntosh
Release Date: 11th February 2016
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books
Genre: YA, Science Fiction
Source: Giveaway (ARC)

Synopsis:
How much would you pay for superpowers? Fast-paced action adventure with a world-changing twist...

For fans of The Maze Runner and The 5th Wave, this debut YA novel from Hugo Award-winner Will McIntosh pits four teens against an evil billionaire in the race of a lifetime.

Sully is a sphere dealer at a flea market. It doesn't pay much - Alex Holliday's stores have muscled out most of the independent sellers - but it helps him and his mum make the rent. No one knows where the brilliant-coloured spheres came from. One day they were just there, hidden all over the earth like huge gemstones. Burn a pair and they make you a little better: an inch taller, skilled at maths, better-looking. The rarer the sphere, the greater the improvement - and the more expensive the sphere.

When Sully meets Hunter, a girl with a natural talent for finding spheres, the two start searching together. What they find will change more than just their lives... Because the entire world fights over spheres, but no one knows why they're here or what their powers are... until now.

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I had never heard of this book before and if it hadn't been for me picking it up at a blind book swap at this year's YALC, I probably would not for a long time yet. I did not intend to start it right away either, but the writing on the package promised a fast paced sci-fi, and it certainly delivered!

Usually, where science fiction is concerned, I have a harder time relating with the characters' quests as they take place in a world that has little in common with our own. In this case, Sully's world is almost a mirror image of the one we inhabit today: there are some technological advances that, even though they already exist now, their more common use in the story suggests its placement a few years in the future, but the references to celebrities and artists still famous today grounds the story within our reach. As of now this makes the world incredibly believable, but perhaps not the most timeless, as reading this years from now will certainly displace it from the 'futuristic' aspect people expect from this genre.

Sully as a main character grabbed me from the first page. His motivations and desires are something that I immediately latched onto, and most people will as well. Who does not wish for a better life, works hard towards one, and has hardships along the way but keeps on walking? This along with his personality made for an immediately likeable character, and I related with him so much I even mistakenly read him as a girl for a couple of chapters (I don't know how that happened, he's clearly referred to as 'he', but with the first person perspective it just eluded me. Or I just really wanted to be him!).

The remaining characters of this book, even if not many, were also incredibly well rounded. We have the best friend, the newcomer, the crush... Who do not stick to those labels and actually do other things in the story. Ah, how refreshing that was! There is LGBT representation in the main group of characters (even though somewhat stereotypical, I'm not quite sure if it crossed the line into problematic), and one of the main characters is a POC. Along with the extra points for diversity, we also have positive examples of parenting. I lost count of how many times the characters were thwarted in their plans because they actually had parents to answer to and curfews to respect. So many times in YA I have to suspend my disbelief and go along with the idea that a bunch of teenagers can run around in their adventures without any consequences, but here it was an ever present fact. They get grounded, they have boundaries, and it was glorious.

As for the villain (usually one of my favorite characters to read), I found him quite believable. I am one of those people that sticks to the idea that a villain is a hero in their own story, and in this case I could definitely see that. If I put myself in his shoes, I could understand his motivations and his reasoning behind what he does (you know, up until the murdering. That's sort of the line). I felt like he really carried the burden of antagonist well, without crossing the line into that trope of 'I'm a villain just because there needs to be one'.

Seeing as it is not set that far into the future, and the characters still go through the same struggles that we today can relate to, the fact that there is still some impressive world-building is commendable. From the very beginning, the story of these 'magical' spheres that one day scattered across the planet and offer people enhanced abilities is weaved into the plot, and very smartly explained. For someone that easily forgets plot details, always having the insurance that when a sphere colour is mentioned there is a parenthesis including what ability it improves was a sure proof way that I never felt out of place or disconnected from this world. There is a lot of information into how these spheres have changed the world they live in but there is never an info dump at a certain part of the book. All the world building is evenly distributed throughout the book, and it always occurred very naturally.

The one problem I had with this book, I had from before I even opened it. I understand that comparing a novel with other best selling books in the same genre is a good marketing strategy, but in this care I believe it spoils the entire plot. The whole mystery of this book is how the spheres came to be on Earth, and who is right in the debate between people that use the spheres and the ones that believe there is no such thing as a 'free lunch', but anyone that has ever read or even heard of the books that this is compared to will easily guess how this story is going to end. I knew it from the moment I started, I didn't get a detail wrong, and while it was annoying, it also never stopped me from continuing. It is only a greatly written book that manages to keep a reader hooked even though they know what's coming, and I was very surprised with how much I still loved this book despite it.

'Burning Midnight' is a great stepping stone into the science fiction genre if you are looking for a place to start, or a nice respite of the heavily technological/outer-spacey tomes you have on your shelf. Even if you are convinced of how it is going to end, you will still find plenty of surprises along the way to keep you interested, uncovered by immensely realistic teenagers.

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