A book that promises mythical creatures always makes me prick my ears, and The Girl at Midnight (debut young adult fantasy), by Melissa Gray, had a really unique take on the firebird legend.
The firebird doesn't actually show up, or any other true mythical creatures, but instead you get two magical sort of half-human races, one descended from dragons and one half-human, half-bird, each person with some similarities to different kinds of bird (owls, peacocks, ravens, etc). The two races, the Drakarn and the Avicen, live on the edges of contemporary society, hidden by their magic. And they are at war with each other. In the middle between them is Echo, a potential bridge to peace, a young human girl. The girl at midnight.
It's wonderful when you have so many things you love in a book that you start numbering them because you're so excited to see how high your numbers will go:
1) A secret room in the New York City Public library where Echo lives and hoards books.
2) Echo's whip-smart but vulnerable character: "she had the unflappable compsure of those who have lived too long in too short a span of time"
3) the interesting use of travel via the "in-between"
4) The collection of foreign words that don't have equivalent meanings in English (but should). "Kalverliefde. The euphoria you experience when you fall in love for the first time. For a word that contained only four letters, love felt like a monumental leap"
5) Wonderful characterization! "Echo did not giggle. She chuckled. She cackled. Occasionally, she even chortled. But giggling? Heavens, no."
6) Laugh out loud moments! "If her hormones had a face, she would slap it"
7) A Lord of the Rings reference! "Greatness is not always good." "Yeah, yeah, one ring to trule them all, I get it"
8) Real life truth for teens. Actually, great advice for any age. "The young always think they are invincible. Right up to the moment they learn otherwise. Usually, the hard way" "To know the truth, you must first want the truth"
9) a delicious new mythology developed out of the real Serbian mythology of the Ala, a female spirit associated with bad weather, sometimes seen as a raven, whose traditional enemy is the dragon.
10) The clever reimagining of the firebird as the only possible bridge for peace between two warring mythical races: the bird-like Avicen and the fire-breathing dragon-descended Drakhar.
11) the symbolism of the magpie and the mirror!
"They make excellent thieves, you know."
There was something unbearably sad about him. For a brief moment she saw the person he might have been long ago, before the war had taken its toll. "They're smart, too... they are the only birds that pass the mirror test... The humble magpie is the only bird that can recognize it's own reflection."
12) the hints about Echo's name. "The firebird?" Yes. The word held an echo, as though it were spoken by many voices at once.
13) masks and the past: "just because it's in the past doesn't mean its over"
14) an epic betrayal
15) An interesting collection of settings, from delicious but too-short moments in Scotland and Kyoto, to Strasbourg (needed more of that, too), followed by the Black Forest in Germany. I've decided I love fantasy settings even more when they are intermixed with with real settings that I might have the opportunity to visit someday.
Though the book is a respectable 360 pages, I wish it could have been longer. I dearly wanted to see more of the marvelous settings and characters (definitely want more of the Ala!) Perrin was developed so well I thought he would be critical to the story, but he had only one early-on scene!
I thought all the characters were memorable (even Ruby), and I wanted to see more of them; I wanted this to be an EPIC fantasy cast. I wanted more back story! More history! More world-building! I got fantastic HINTS of all this, but I wanted MOOOORRREEE; and not as a sequel. Sequels give you more, yes, but what I mean is I wanted THIS book to give me more. I still felt an itch when it finished.
Many reviewers have compared it to Daughter of Smoke and Bone and I definitely see the same appeal. The parallels between the stories didn't bother me; I don't think The Midnight Girl was a copy cat, but it didn't quite have the same depth as Daughter of Smoke and Bone. However I think it will appeal to readers who want more action and less description and introspection. I've only read one of Cassandra Clare's books but my gut feeling is it will appeal more to her fans than to Laini Taylor's.
Disclosure: there is some kissing in this book and sexual innuendo but no sex. There are two male side characters that become romantically involved.
Many thanks to Random House and NetGalley for the free advance copy. It did not influence my review in anyway.