Expected, Unexpected, and Still Mildly Disappointing – A Review of Burning Midnight by Will McIntosh

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Not too long ago Book Riot put out a video about how to manage expectations when reading. I admit that, while I try my best to manage my expectations so that I don’t disappoint myself too badly, I actually have a hard time doing so, mostly because I always expect the writer to put out the very best work they possibly can, with the very best audience in mind. This, at least, was what I was taught I was supposed to do while I was in university: write with the best audience in mind, and read as if the writer is writing for just such an audience.

But things can get a little wobbly when trying to define the word “audience”. That is a very, very broad term, after all, and no writer can ever account for precisely what kinds of people will read his or her books. This is why “writing for an audience” is so tricky: that audience can be absolutely anyone, and as any writer knows (or ought to know), there’s no pleasing everybody.

This is, perhaps, why I so very rarely read young adult nowadays. Since I am in my early thirties I don’t feel like I’m still part of YA’s target audience, and so I think: these books are not for me. But when I see people my age, or older, reading and enjoying YA, I tend to wonder: am I missing out on something? Could there possibly be YA that I can still enjoy with the same gusto as when I was in my teens and twenties? It’s possible: after all, there have been quite a few times when I’ve picked up YA books and enjoyed them thoroughly; I also still find quite a bit of pleasure reading the YA books I read when I was younger. Perhaps, then, it is not so much that I don’t like all of the current crop of YA, but that I just haven’t found the right books.

It was with those thoughts in mind that I chose to keep an eye out for Will McIntosh’s Burning Midnight, as part of my attempt to at least try and read a little more YA than I did last year (or in the years previous). However, now that I have actually read the book, I am sad to say that it did not quite live up to the expectations I had for it, though it certainly has its good points.

Burning Midnight is set in a world very much like the one we inhabit, with one small difference: the existence of things called “spheres”, which look like marbles, but, if used together as a pair in a process called “burning”, can grant the user a whole array of seemingly supernatural powers, ranging from an enhanced sense of smell all the way to accelerated healing, increased physical strength, and a higher IQ. They are scattered all over the world, and can be found practically anywhere anyone thinks to look, though they do tend to be concentrated in places of heavy human habitation. Since humanity found out about spheres and what they can do, an entire economy has been set up around them, with people paying millions of dollars for the rarest spheres, and large corporations funding hunters to find more spheres before they run out completely.

Sully is a part of that economy, albeit only a very small part, buying and selling spheres at a flea market in Yonkers. However, he is running out of time: unless he can make a big score and sell spheres with a higher rarity, he and his mother will be forced to leave their tiny apartment and go elsewhere, and Sully will have to leave all the comforts of his current life (such as they are) behind. But when a young woman named Hunter offers to sell him a rare sphere, he sees an opportunity to turn his life around – except he quickly gets far, far more than he bargained for, as the truth about the spheres finally unravels around him and his friends: a truth that could either destroy the world, or save it.

My experience with this novel has been a sequence of altered expectations: neutral, for the most part, but occasionally disappointing. For instance, when I first heard of this book I was under the impression that it would be a “Lovecraftian-style” horror novel. While it does have some elements of Lovecraftian horror, those elements don’t really come into play until towards the very end of the story. Before then, the reader has other material to get through: material that may or many not be of particular interest to them, depending on their preferences and/or their state of mind at the time of reading.

For my part, I think it’s not all that bad. McIntosh tries to explore some deeper themes in the first two-thirds of the novel: the complex relationship between financial status and advantage in life is one of the big ones, because only the wealthy can actually afford the spheres necessary to really improve themselves as they wish. Take this excerpt, for example:

Rob leaned in. “Have you guys seen Jayla Washburn yet?”

“Have I seen her?” Sully asked, confused.

Rob nodded. “Her parents got her an early Christmas present. A pair of Cranberries. You’re not going to believe it.”

Cranberry. Better-looking. Rarity seven. How did these people afford this stuff? Sully knew you could get twenty-, thirty-year loans from the bank to buy spheres, but he couldn’t believe people actually did that just so their daughter could be prettier.

It’s no secret that being good-looking is an advantage, and just like in our reality, where only the moneyed can afford the various cosmetic procedures necessary to improve their looks, only those with money can afford the spheres they need – or want – to get ahead. The novel, via Sully and Hunter, devotes a rather large chunk of storytelling to showing how spheres have changed the way everything, from education to sports to politics, has changed thanks to the spheres, and what the repercussions are for those who either cannot afford to use the spheres, or simply decide not to for various reasons. That the use of the spheres is always tied to great wealth makes them a useful tool for commenting on how money equals power and advantage, spheres or no spheres.

Also very interesting is the way McIntosh uses Sully and Hunter to tackle other, more sensitive issues, such as poverty, abuse, and privilege:

Sully thumbed through the pages, stopping at random: Mint (more outgoing), Magenta (night vision), Plum (erase memories).

“I don’t know why someone would want to burn Plums,” Sully said to Hunter… “Who wants to erase a part of their life, whether it’s good or bad? You couldn’t pay me to erase even my worst memory.”

Very slowly, Hunter closed her eyes. “That’s because you’ve never had something bad happen to you.”

Sully laughed. “Are you kidding me? My father’s an alcoholic. He once kicked me in the ass so hard he lifted me right off the ground. My life was miserable before Mom left him.”

As Hunter turned to face him, Sully could see he’d hit a nerve. “So tell me. Do you wake up screaming from nightmares of your drunken father kicking you in the ass really hard? Do you think about it every day? When you think about it, do you still break out in a sweat and get sick to your stomach after all these years?”

… “You know, you don’t have a monopoly on hard times. My mom just lost her job. …”

“You think that’s something we have in common, don’t you? That we both grew up poor. You’re not poor. You’re just growing up in the crappiest part of a tony suburb. You get three meals a day; you stop in at McDonald’s for french fries on the way to your soccer league.” … “You have your own room, for God’s sake. You’re not poor. You just feel poor because everyone around you is rich.”

There are other situations similar to the one above, and I find them interesting because of what they are trying to say, of the insight they provide about what it means to be poor, or abused, or mentally ill, as well as the nuances of class and wealth and how those complicate the former.

But that is where my feelings on the matter stop: at interest. I would say “mere interest” if it were not for the fact that it is clear how important those scenes are – or at least, important to the reader. I think McIntosh includes them because he thinks these are ideas the reader should learn and think about. Attempting to include and focus on such issues is noteworthy in writers, particularly YA writers, and I think McIntosh writes about them in a relatively sensitive manner.

However, while the inclusion of such themes is indeed laudable, they are not very well-integrated into the overall fabric of the novel. The scenes seem to float, as if they are part of another story entirely, having very little to do with main action itself. This means they have the terrible tendency of slowing the narrative down in all the wrong places. I suppose it’s a good thing they are put early in the novel, because they would be an even greater hindrance towards the latter end when all the action comes into play, but it does make the book feel rather lopsided: all introspection and development at one end, and all breathless action at the other.

It might be because of this uneven thematic integration that makes the novel feel like it lacks a certain depth. This is the most common problem I currently have with YA: an inability to deal with certain important themes at any great depth, or to make it feel as if these themes are as weighty as I think they should be. While a part of me thinks that this is so because of the genre’s intended audience, I also think that writers should give more credit to said audience’s ability to disentangle, process, and discuss such themes even if they are more deeply-nestled within a story’s fabric. If the depth of meta discussions I’ve encountered in certain fandoms is any indication, teenagers can and will find themes that are of value to them and happily dissect them down to the minutest detail, so writers do not need to present them as baldly as McIntosh does in this novel. What matters more to them – and to myself, as a reader – is that the story is well-written and sufficiently entertaining, while at the same time incorporating any important themes in a way that does not interfere with either characterisation or plot.

Overall, Burning Midnight is something of a mixed-bag. The concept is quite interesting, and McIntosh attempts to tackle some themes related to class, poverty, and abuse, but some readers might notice a certain clunkiness in terms of incorporating those themes into the overall story. Said readers might also notice a certain shallowness overall: a lack of depth in characterisation and plot that they might find off-putting. While this book might be satisfactory, even absolutely enjoyable, for some readers, it is highly likely that other readers will find themselves disappointed with it and may decide to put it aside in favour of other reading.

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