The Midnight Palace
THE MIDNIGHT PALACE is a story of two children whose parents are murdered, who are hunted down as infants and rescued miraculously by a British officer who just manages to spirit them away and into the protective arms of their loving grandmother, before suffering the same fate. To protect their identity, the woman chooses to separate them at birth and raises only the little girl (a familiar scenario, but it works here).
Ben and Sheere are the babies who grow up in secret, far away from each other. Sheere is raised on the run, living with her grandmother for long periods as a vagabond, always in hiding and running from every shadow. The boy, Ben, is left in an orphanage until he reaches adulthood, a decent home where he does enjoy close friendships and develops a fatherly relationship with the kindly headmaster. But Ben suffers from the knowledge of being an orphan and from the strange visions of events he certainly must have imagined, as he hadn't even been born when they originally occurred in Calcutta many years before.
These twins do not know of the other's existence until the day Sheere's grandmother begins seeing ominous signs once again. When it's clear that Jawahal (their pursuer) has returned, and especially given that it's around the same time her grandson is due to be released from state care, she is unnerved enough to visit the headmaster to warn him. Sheere is thus given the opportunity to finally meet her brother, even while the two are initially unaware of the other's identity.
Even before knowing the truth, Sheere and Ben become fast friends and trust each other instictively. Sheere is quickly declared an honorary member of Ben's "Chowbar Society" of orphans. She begins meeting in secret with these kids, at midnight in their hideout in Calcutta: "The Midnight Palace," an abandoned, dilapidated, mildly scary haunted house. What had once been a stately mansion has become creepy and decrepit, a building with architecture and gargoyles that merely add to the disquieting effect. It lies along the banks of the Hooghly River and has a strange story and history behind it.
As the story jumps forward, Jawahal returns in the flesh for the children, but choosing not to run this time, Sheere finally makes a stand with her new friends. The villain makes for quite the mystery: a strange and unearthly tale involving an Indian legend and 365 orphaned children who once died in a train fire at the hands of a madman during an inaugural celebration in Calcutta. Once the orphans begin seeing renewed visions of ghost trains and spirits, readers will realize they have more in store than the usual adventurous fare.
THE MIDNIGHT PALACE is a mildly scary story that will appeal to younger YA readers. The plot tends toward naïve themes and reminds me a great deal of the Disney movie The Haunted Mansion. As such, it will be attractive to a certain demographic, but makes for a pretty corny, clichéd story for the larger group of readers, who may not be entertained by it. Nevertheless, it should be appropriate for children ages 10 and up, contains no romance or bad language, and is not scary enough to disquiet tender readers.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on May 31, 2011