Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
By Midnight is yet another entry in the “teenage vampire” canon, which must surely now almost be large enough to be called a genre in itself. Fortunately, this particular novel is one of the more superior entries, and if some of its’ influences show pretty clearly, at least they’re more Buffy than Twilight (for a change).
April Dunne is less than happy about her forced move to Highgate in London. She’s spent her teenage years to date in Edinburgh, Scotland, where her father was an investigative reporter. Now he’s lost his job, and the only one he could find was back in London. He and her mother won’t let April stay in Edinburgh and stay with a friend while finishing school; so she’s been dragged down to Highgate, and forced to start again at Ravenwood. Ravenwood is the school of her nightmares; it’s for kids who are very very bright – or very very rich. And April isn’t either. April just knows she’ll struggle to fit in.
She isn’t wrong either. Everyone seems more talented or more glamorous than she is. And she doesn’t understand the motives of most people, from the attractive Gabriel who alternately pushes her away and draws her closer, to the beautiful Davinia who seems to want to take mousy April under her wing. It’s hard to start a new school in the middle of term and catch up with all the work. So she counts herself lucky when she finds the straight-forwardly friendly Caro Jackson – Caro is a conspiracy theorist and a bit of a nut, but so is April’s father – she’s used to it. Caro has a theory about who’s behind a number of nasty murders in the area, and wacky as the theory is, April begins to suspect that her father shares it. Things get more and more sinister, and much as April tries to focus on whether Gabriel likes her or not, and run of the mill fights with her parents, she finds herself drawn into the mystery.
By Midnight does do something I really hate – it doesn’t announce that it’s the first of a series. Late in the novel you realise that there’s been too much set-up, and it’s unlikely the story will be resolved in this volume; and sure enough, in the last few pages it becomes clear that this is but volume one. I really hate that. It feels unfair on a reader who may be expecting a complete story; and it does throw off the rhythm of the book. Not a lot is resolved in this novel; most of the main plot threads continue to dangle. In that regard this is an unsatisfying novel.
On other fronts, however, this has a lot to recommend it. It packs a powerful emotional punch; it’s far ahead of many novels with similar themes. Partly this is because James sets up a situation that takes the reader by surprise, and partly it’s because of the strength of her characters. Most of them are vivid, and readers will find it easy to empathise with April. She’s enough of an everyday teenager to make her feel real, while just unusual enough to make her interesting to read about. Similarly, her friends and family are easy to believe in.
The blurb on the back of the book makes it sound as though it’s going to be a teenage vampire romance. There is romance with the mysterious Gabriel Swift (and most readers will work out that Gabriel is a vampire long before April does), but in some ways this isn’t the central relationship of the novel. Sure, April witters about it a lot. But her relationships with her friends Fiona and Caroline, and her parents, are portrayed more strongly and are far more vital to the novel. This both adds to the reality and makes the novel more palatable to older readers, as well as adding a dash of originality; we’ve certainly seen the teenage girl falling for the older vampire motif often before, but in By Midnight it isn’t all consuming. It’s only a part of the story.
This is going to be labelled a young adult novel because the main protagonist is a teenager, and therefore a certain amount of the action takes place in teenage settings such as high school. However, the emotional depth of the characters should mean that older readers who don’t usual read young adult fiction would find this novel attractive and engaging. Even the aspects which are truly teenage and not adult are engaging due to their familiarity – cliques, teenage parties, and being made to do things you don’t want to do are memories most people will share.
The end of the novel pretty much shouts out some of the directions that a sequel (or sequels) will follow. And I’m not on the edge of my seat waiting to find out; although this was an engaging novel that kept me interested while I was reading it, it hasn’t left me desperate to find out what happens next. On that level it may be more attractive to its intended younger audience, who may have less reading history to draw on. However, the novel was good enough that I’ll certainly keep an eye out for sequels, and would anticipate enjoying them. By Midnight is recommended for those who don’t mind that the major payoffs are likely to happen in future novels; and for younger readers who enjoy above average takes on familiar themes.