REVIEW: Catching Midnight by Emma Holly
Dear Ms. Holly,
A few years ago, I read your historical romance Beyond Innocence. While I didn’t love the book, I thought it was better than average and I especially liked your writing voice, so much so that I quoted from it in my opinion piece on style. Therefore, when Janet (Robin) recommended Catching Midnight to me, I ordered a copy of the book and took it with me on a recent trip.
Catching Midnight is the first book in a historical paranormal series that features upyrs, immortal, blood-drinking shape-shifters. Set in the medieval era, the book opens in 1349, when ten year old Gillian is cast out of her home by her mother because her baby brother is infected with the plague. Gillian can sometimes sense people’s secrets and her perception tells her that her mother prefers her brother to her. Nonetheless, she follows her mother’s advice and runs to hide in the forest, where she expects to die.
After falling asleep in the woods, Gillian awakens to hear voices arguing over her. The voices belong to Auriclus and Nim Wei, two upyr elders who both want to claim Gillian. Nim Wei and her “children” (those she has made into upyrs) live in the cities, while Auriclus’s “children” dwell in the forest. Nim Wei believes in the pursuit of knowledge and material things, while Auriclus sees a more austere and simple life as the path to goodness. When the two elders let Gillian choose which of them she will go with, Gillian, though she possesses a lively and curious mind, chooses Auriclus because even more than knowledge, she wants to be a good person.
The story then flashes forward over twenty years. Gillian is now an ageless upyr with the ability to read many creatures’ minds, and she lives in a cave with upyrs who can transform into wolves. The leader of the pack, Ulric, wants Gillian to be his mate. But although he and Gillian occasionally sleep together, she does not feel that their relationship is exactly what she wants, and because she craves the knowledge that the rest of the pack does not care about, she refuses to take a wolf as her familiar and acquire the ability to become a wolf herself.
Sensing that Ulric intends to force the issue, Gillian leaves the cave in the middle of the night. When she takes shelter in a seaside cliff, she is able to hear the thoughts of a baby falcon, and she instinctively knows that she and the bird can join their consciousnesses so that they will then be able to transform from Gillian’s form to that of the falcon and back at will.
Just as Gillian is making the falcon her familiar, Aimery Fitz Clare and his nephew Robin are planning to capture a baby falcon. Aimery is the younger brother of Edmund, the baron of Bridesmere. Edmund’s beautiful but self-centered wife, Claris, believes she is in love with Aimery, and her fixation on him has made Aimery’s life hell, since he lives in Bridesmere where he serves his brother as master of arms. Edmund and Aimery’s relationship is strained by Claris’s infatuation with Aimery, and by Edmund’s envy of Aimery’s courage. Aimery is battle-scarred and huge, and many fear him, which serves to make him feel further isolated.
Such is the situation when Aimery captures Gillian while she is in her falcon form. His nephew Robin names the bird “Princess.” Aimery’s gentleness with Princess appeals to Gillian greatly, and she becomes fascinated with him. After arriving Bridesmere, Gillian takes her human form to explore the castle. In her search, she stumbles across a scrying device that alerts Nim Wei to a disturbance within what is part of her domain. The elder decides to go to Bridesmere and investigate further.
Meanwhile, Gillian encounters Aimery and when he believes her to be a goddess, she does not correct his misapprehension. A mutual attraction develops quickly between the two and Gillian visits Aimery at night, while during the day she learns to fly. But she begins to fear that she will hurt Aimery by sucking his blood, and when Nim Wei arrives at Bridesmere, things become more complicated.
Catching Midnight started off wonderfully. You do an excellent job of blending historical detail with a romantic feel. In fact, the book is so strong in this regard that this aspect of it, along with the presence of honorable yet interesting characters, and the inclusion of a falcon in the story, reminded me initially first of one of my favorite medieval romances, Mary Jo Putney’s Uncommon Vows.
The scenes of young Gillian running away from plague-ridden London were vivid and powerful, as was her first encounter with Auriclus and Nim Wei. The pack and their cave were less interesting to me but I liked the character of Lucius, one of the older upyrs.
Although I was very confused by the scene in which Gillian and the falcon united, since I was not sure whether only their consciousnesses merged or their bodies as well, even after reading it more than once, I was quickly hooked again when Aimery appeared. His kindness and gentleness with Robin and then with Princess endeared him to me very quickly, and I understood why Gillian would feel so drawn to him.
Unfortunately I could not understand why Gillian would fascinate Aimery so quickly, since he had only previously known her as the bird Princess, and did not even know that she and Princess were one and the same. This was where the book did not work so well for me. I felt that Aimery fell in love with Gillian for her beauty and her paranormal nature; her external qualities, in other words, rather than anything specific about her personality.
The biggest barrier to my enjoyment in the book was this one: I felt that it relied too much on Aimery and Gillian being soulmates, and didn’t really take the time to develop the relationship. Aimery’s instantaneous feelings for Gillian made it difficult for me to care about the progress of their relationship once he met Gillian in her human form, since I felt that the progession of that relationship was disappointingly conventional and rushed. It was around this point in the story that I noticed that it was becoming easier for me to put the book down.
In addition, Gillian’s supernatural abilities and power seemed to me to develop in a way that was not entirely consistent with the paranormal aspects of the world-building and this seemed a bit too convenient.
A subplot involving Nim Wei and Edmund developed partway into the book and I found myself more and more interested in this couple and less and less interested in Aimery and Gillian. Nim Wei is a splendid character, clever and cynical, and her interactions with the uneasy Edmund were very enjoyable. I also thought the resolution of Nim Wei and Edmund’s relationship was much more fresh and interesting than the way the obstacles keeping Aimery and Gillian were removed.
Every once in a while I come across a book I feel has tremendous potential, one that raises my expectations and excites me, and when it doesn’t satisfy me as much as I hope that it will, I feel let down, perhaps more so than I should. Catching Midnight is such a book. I feel that several of its parts were special, but the sum they add up to is not all that it could be, so it gets a C+ from me.