Illustrations by Ayesha L. Rubio
For ages 9+
I can't believe it's been pretty much 2 years since I read Tooke's debut middle grade novel 'The Unadoptables' (Puffin) - an 1880s edge-of-the-seat mystery adventure about a group of children who escape an orphanage in Amsterdam. I had often wondered what a second book would look like and here we are, summer 2022 and I've had the pleasure of reading all 398 pages of 'The Midnighters', and I'm so happy and excited to be sharing my review with you all. A special welcome to those who have found my review today through the Puffin Books Blog Tour - so happy to see you here!
My regular readers will know that I really love discovering a kids book that takes me on a journey to another country where I can perhaps enhance my knowledge of its history and culture. In this case, I have been to Prague where this story is set, but as it was for work at the time, I never had the opportunity to do any sight-seeing, sadly. I have therefore revelled in the research Tooke's story has inspired me to undertake. As you read my words and see the images within, I really hope you will feel a few goosebumps and anticipation to read this eerie gothic ghostly murder mystery set in the 1880s.
About the story
The story begins in the residence of the Vaškov family, a large family of scientific over-achievers who live with a view of the famous Astronomical Clock on Old Town Square in the central gothic city of Prague during a period of history when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I have learnt that in the 1800s, science in Prague is on the rise; chemists, astronomers and anatomists are rare but growing in popularity. It is a period of change, much like the industrial revolution in Britain.
Prague is a very old city, steeped in history and progress - electricity has just come to the city - unreliable, but fashionable. It is also laced with complex underground corridors and rooms. With the increase in knowledge and understanding of science so too is the increase in secret societies, mysteries, fraud and criminals. Nowadays, Prague is considered to be one of the most haunted cities in Europe and a place full of legends and mysteries.
“…The cryptic city on the Vltava [river] does not show her hand. The antiquary coquetry with which she pretends to be nothing more than a still life, a silent succession of glories long since past, a dead landscape in a glass ball, only increases her sorcery. She slyly works her way into the soul with spells and enigmas to which she alone holds the key. Prague does not release anyone she has taken hold of…”
- Italian translator, poet, linguist and academic A. M. Ripellino, ‘Magic Prague’ (1973)
Images above, scenes from the story: Old Town Square, Church of Our Lady Before Týn, the famous Astronomical Clock
What about that for some insight?! Now, are you the suspicious type?? The book isn't entitled 'The Midnighters' for nothing. Ema Vaškova, the 12th grandchild of Liliana, born on the 12th day of the 12th month has "hair the colour of spider silk, candle-smoke eyes flecked with the palest blue" and is our story's protagonist. As Ema is brought into the world, the youngest child of Milena and Karel, Milena's mother Liliana precisely draws her last breath in her attic bedroom elsewhere in Prague. Liliana, the "unmentionable" grandmother had the mysterious gift of being able to prophesy doom in people's lives notated in cryptic riddle-esq divinations in her journals - as Ema comes to discover.
Ema's adoring siblings grow up and leave for life's adventures, until she is the only one left at home. Her parents then leave for an important scientific expedition quite unexpectedly and Ema is sent to stay at her mother's brother Josef's house, where Liliana had once lived. He is a nervous type who makes bicycles with the bone shaker the current model of the day. Josef keeps himself to himself, lives with his giant Maine Coon cat Ferkel ('piglet' in English) and bakes delicious cakes at a moments notice in aid of an apology even. He also has knack for being able to predict the weather, just like Ema's mother.
Up until this time Ema has been trying to work something out. She's been trying to work out what her calling is. All her female siblings had no trouble getting into a much coveted exclusive academy for young female scholars. Headmistress, Dagmara Batronová however, has no patience for Ema's research into and hypotheses about her very own peculiarities, the "Ema Enigma". These traits include: feeling disaster looming, signified by an increase in seeing the number twelve in quantities of items, times, dates, and more; being unseen and having the ability to move about undetected. “There’s something very troubling about the number twelve,” says Ema.
It's at midnight (of course) during the first night at Josef's that Ema meets Sylvie. Not quite the way you might meet your first ever childhood BFF... Sylvie is hanging upside down like a bat in the open window on the other side of the street facing into Liliana's attic bedroom, Ema's new lodgings. The reader wonders whether Sylvie is perhaps a ghost, perhaps a vampire? A toffee-sealed invitation scroll invites Ema on a midnight adventure. Overcoming her timidity and anxiety through sheer curiosity, she meets Sylvie for the first time. Sylvie's acrobat, illusion and trickery skills are just so mysterious and secretive. She even has a pet bat called 'Bartok'! Every full moon they meet following their 'Midnight Manifesto' to banish Ema's fears, and to banish the idea that normal is something worth striving for. Sylvie loves that Emma is "splendiferously peculiar" and gradually Ema becomes more confident and brave through their adventures together.
Images above, scenes from the Ema and Sylvie's adventures in the story: Charles Bridge, Kampa Island, Hunger Wall
One night things take an unusual turn. Ema has noticed that Sylvie regularly reaches for a hidden necklace, but can't find the right moment to ask her about it. In the dead of night, Sylvie takes her to a graveyard where they enter a mausoleum. Sylvie has been reading Ema's research and perhaps, just perhaps, Ema can help with something deadly important.
Sylvie needs Ema to help her communicate with the dead, someone who was a ghost-whisperer, who gifted Sylvie the necklace she'd been concealing - a porcelain eyeball talisman to communicate with the spiritworld - to speak with: Alois Blažek (1866 - 1889). Today would have been his birthday and the spirit world is more accessible today. They are interrupted by the arrival of a cloaked figure bearing at white tulip (symbolic for forgiveness). They fear discovery, hide then split for home as soon as the coast is clear.
A cold letter arrives soon after from Sylvie. She's gone away. That's odd. Ema's intuition is that Sylvie is lying, she must be in trouble and she needs her best friend more than ever. It turns out that amongst Ema's gifts she is also an incredible sleuth. She finds Sylvie's hideout where she's been living above a water wheel, and there she finds a map that leads to a dark alleyway near the Church of Our Lady Before Týn. She follows cloaked figures and due to her natural stealth mode, she infiltrates what she comes to know as a secret society called the 'Midnight Guild' under the city of Prague itself. Here she discovers a hierarchy of children, some her own age, who work as 'acolytes' serving their revered 'scientific' masters whose purpose is to dress spectacularly to attract attention to the weird and the wonderful advances in paranormal, astronomical, botanical and mechanical advances in the land. All this is overseen by a 'Master of the Universe' or 'Impresario'.
Through discovering a hidden prophesy of doom behind the wallpaper in her grandmother's bedroom, Ema starts to link clues to a covered up murder, that of the aforementioned Alois Blažek, the Midnight Guild's former paranormal expert. Gaining the trust of some of the acolytes, the children work together, using Ema's peculiar gifts to their advantage, to trick and tease the true murderer out of the shadows and save Sylvie before it's too late.
This is an edgy, dark, mystical, and sophisticated story. On one hand it is a complex murder mystery set in unfamiliar times over 100 years ago. On the other hand it is a simple story of a friendship between two lonely and gifted girls, who find each other and become entangled in each other's enigmatic webs. Children in this middle age bracket do tend to undergo a surge in awareness of their own identity and can internalise their ponderings on the whys and wherefores of life and death, which can lead to confusion and anxiety in some. Accepting another's explanation might not cut it any more, and they feel braver start to investigate themes for themselves. Growing in self-awareness and self-acceptance hopefully leads to confidence and bravery if surrounded by loving friends or family, as it does with Ema.
I leave you with some of Sylvie’s pearls of wisdom:
“Being wrong can be more exciting than being correct.”
“You should be thrilled about making mistakes, not scared of them.”
“Banish the idea that normal is something worth striving for.”
Further research sites of interest regarding Ema's abilities:
Images above, Josef's bakes from the story: crescent moon shaped rohlíčky and apricot kolache
P.S. I wrote this review using a proof (pre-publication draft) and I have observed that there is an Afterword in the published beautiful hardback edition that I hadn't had the chance to read before. Tooke explains that during the writing process for 'The Midnighters', which she had found a real struggle, she was diagnosed as neurodivergent. She tells the reader, that perhaps Ema might even be neurodivergent now that she understands her own traits more. I think I might have to agree with that theory! What an amazing journey of self-discovery both Ema and Tooke have been on. I'm so happy that I picked up on that!
About the creator
Hana Tooke (author)
Hana Tooke grew up near Amsterdam, in a house filled with peculiar clocks and a head filled with a peculiar imagination. Half Dutch/English, she then moved to the south of England at the age of twelve. After completing a degree in music, and then a PGCE, Hana was a primary school teacher for several years. She also completed the Bath Spa University Writing for Young People MA, and The Unadoptables was shortlisted for The Bath Children's Novel Award 2018. Hana now lives in Bath with two humans and a cat. When she’s not writing stories she’s sculpting puppets, and collecting curiosities.
Ayesha L. Rubio (illustrator)
Ayesha L. Rubio was born in Madrid. She studied Fine Arts in Spain and England before beginning her work as an illustrator. She has three books of her own and has embarked on new adventures in the world of animation.
Finding your voice
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Publication date: 23 June 2022
Also by Hana Tooke:
‘The Unadoptables’ (Puffin, 2020 HB, 2021 PB)
Praise for The Unadoptables : 'A high-speed, witty, absurd and joyful adventure' - Katherine Rundell, author of Rooftoppers and The Explorer 'Perfection!' - Robin Stevens, author of the bestselling Murder Most Unladylike series 'A corker of a story' - Emma Carroll, author of Letters to the Lighthouse
*Kaleidoscopic Tours provided me with a review copy of 'The Midnighters'.
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