In a post-apocalyptic world controlled by alien invaders, two teens and a young girl with mysterious powers embark on a dangerous journey. What they find will change everything…
Earth has been conquered. An extraterrestrial race known as The Assembly has abducted the adult population, leaving the planet’s youth to fend for themselves. In this treacherous landscape, Holt, a bounty hunter, is transporting his prisoner Mira when they discover Zoey, a young girl with powerful abilities who could be the key to stopping The Assembly. As they make their way to the cavernous metropolis of Midnight City, the trio must contend with freedom fighters, mutants, otherworldly artifacts, pirates, feuding alien armies, and perhaps most perilous of all: Holt and Mira’s growing attraction to each other.
Midnight City is the breathtaking first novel in the Conquered Earth series, and a stunning work of imagination from debut author J. Barton Mitchell.
-cover art and description courtesy of goodreads.
Atmospheric Analysis: I’m not usually a fan of mono-colour cover art, but it works pretty well here. The tumultuous sky and looming city are nice atmospheric touches.
Planetary Scale: Post-apocalyptic SF of the alien invasion variety, a genre that is sorely underrepresented right now.
Mohs Scale: This is pretty much science fantasy, probably closer to a 2 than a 1. The world of Midnight City is stuffed with phlebotinum, but it’s all handle in a relatively consistent manner.
Viability Rating: Again, science fantasy. The video-game logic behind the creation of the magic-in-all-but-name ‘artifacts’ makes them feel more concrete in the context of the story, but it doesn’t necessarily make them any more plausibly realistic. Assume from the beginning that scientific explanations aren’t important to the story and you’ll likely have a good time.
Xenolinguistical Assessment: Insert celebratory remarks about third-person here! Midnight City switches perspectives between its three main characters (Holt and Mira more often than Zoey), but stays firmly in third-person throughout. There’s very little difference in terms of voice or style between them.
Apart from that, the writing is perfectly competent and readable. The action scenes in particular move along slickly and are generally easy to follow, which is a plus in a book where most chapters involve a chase or a fight or a flash flood or all three at once.
Expanded Report: Midnight City reminded me, in a strange way, of Ashen Winter. Both books involve small groups of post-disaster survivors trying to traverse a treacherous landscape in search of safety and a way to escape the people (or aliens) coming after them, and both are heavy on action. Where they differ is that Ashen Winter takes a fairly realistic approach to its action and characters, whereas Midnight City is heavy on Hollywood-style fight scenes and one-liners. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing will likely depend on how you feel about Hollywood.
But Midnight City has more going for it than just its quick pacing. I’ll admit that I was a bit leery of it at first. The setup involves Holt, a young bounty hunter, trying to capture Mira, a ‘freebooter’ in search of a valuable item hidden in the wreckage of a world devastated by an alien invasion. Holt is one of the few people who are resistant to the alien’s Tone, a mind-controlling signal that begins to affect people in their adolescence and, by the time they reach the age of twenty or so, turns them into mindless zombies who walk obediently to the nearest alien stronghold. I assumed the plot would involve Holt capturing Mira, slowly realising his feelings for her and then deciding to protect her from the people who put a bounty on her head.
I was right, more or less, except that the book really starts to pile on the inventive touches from the halfway mark onwards. It really hits its stride when the characters arrive at the titular Midnight City itself, a bizarre outpost of human civilization that governs itself according to a complex ‘game’ in which clans of teenagers (as yet unaffected by the Tone) fight for the ‘points’ (think a bizarre version of a stock market) which indicate their relative stature within the city’s hierarchy. The whole thing is unabashedly comic book-ish in the best way possible, and I found myself more than willing to go along with the sometimes-tiresome action because of it.
The Strange Lands and their associated ‘artifacts’ are equally cool on paper, although in execution they end up feeling a bit cheap. Mira keeps a stockpile of so-called ‘major artifacts’ that seem to run on a special brand of entropy that simplifies plotlines. Particularly in the opening chapters of the book, Mira whips out an artifact as the plot demands. I suspect these scenes were supposed to make Mira seem resourceful, but all I could think of was Adam West and his shark repellant. The way Mira crafts artifacts feels jarringly like something out of a video game, with weirdly specific rules governing which artifact components can be combined in what ways.
Actually, the videogame comparisons don’t end there. The alien invaders, known as the Assembly, bear a striking resemblance to the Combine from the Half-Life series. I’m not saying this is a bad thing – the Combine are pretty neat, as alien invaders go. It’s just that the action-movie pacing and video game aesthetics can sometimes make the whole book feel a touch more shallow than it really is.
This might be why the world of Midnight City can feel so unreal at times. Or it could be the fact that Mitchell seems intent on depicting his post-invasion Earth as one completely disconnected from its past; just eight years after the invasion, most people have adopted completely new (and strange) names for many former towns and cities. If you dropped most readers into the middle of the book, they would probably assume that the story takes place in another universe entirely from our own. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem in itself, but there are a few flashbacks to Holt’s life before the invasion that end up being fairly incongruous because of it.
In the end, Midnight City’s more interesting aspects won out for me. I don’t particularly care if I ever get to read about Holt again, but you can bet I’m looking forward to finding out exactly what’s up with the Strange Lands and the Severed Tower.