"Good role playing games don't often make good books, and good books don't often make good role playing games." A friend of mine told me this at a convention a few years ago, and it's an axiom I've borne in mind ever since. After all, for every conversion from D&D-style adventure to novel that works (George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards series is an obvious example), there are dozens that don't. Such books come across exactly like the role-playing sessions that spawned them: enjoyable and full of action, but ultimately forgettable splashes of melodrama more interested in cashing in on a popular franchise than out of respect for the source material.
I realise that I'm being somewhat biased here, but I offer this background only so you can understand my reaction when I picked up a copy of Midnight Never Come and realised that it, too, had been inspired by the author's experiences of playing a role playing game (in this case, Changeling: The Dreaming). I thought I would hate it—I almost did—but in the end, this book was simply too well written, too engrossing and (perhaps contradictorily) too original to add it under the sweeping generalisation above. Marie Brennan's third novel (her first to be released in the UK) is not without its melodrama, and at times it does leave its RPG roots slightly too close to the surface for my liking (more on this later), but overall it is a definite exception to the rule. Reading like a weird mix between Neil Gaiman and Philippa Gregory, the novel carves itself a niche somewhere between historical court intrigue and magical otherworldliness. And it's a niche that's exploited well.
In this alternative world, Queen Elizabeth only sits on England's throne thanks to the help of another queen—Elizabeth's cruel and twisted shadow, Individiana, who rules the faerie courts below London with an iron fist and has played a subtle role in English politics throughout Elizabeth's reign. Without her influence, Elizabeth would never have come to power in the first place: England would have likely fallen to the Spanish Armada and Mary Queen of Scots wouldn't have been brought down. But Individiana is also a thorn in the side of Elizabeth's policies, constantly second-guessing the regent's decisions and adding to her notoriety as a short-tempered ditherer. A number of real-life characters bring factual gravitas to the proceedings, including spymaster Walsingham, who at the beginning of the book is starting to suspect that something is wrong in the English court. When an up-and-coming courtier named Michael Devon comes to him asking for extra responsibilities, Walsingham quickly recruits him to seek out the root of this problem and find what he calls, "the hidden player in the game" (p. 120).
The story is told through the alternating viewpoints of Michael Devon and another courtier, the Lady Lune, who serves Individiana in the faerie courts below. Disgraced, due to a botched mission at the beginning of the novel, Lune finds herself having to work her way back into Individiana's favours the hard way. "To escape the intrigue, first she had to scheme her way free. The only way out was through" (p. 154). She is given one last chance to redeem herself by infiltrating the mortal world above and spying on Walsingham to discover exactly what he's up to. To do this, she masquerades as Michael's lover, and here the plot dives headlong into one of political manoeuvring and character-driven skulduggery, as both characters follow in each other's footsteps, attempting to discover what's staring them in the face all along. Brennan does at times try too hard to ratchet up the tension by throwing in a contrived fight scene or two—her strength as a writer definitely lies in intrigue rather than action—but her characterisation is strong throughout, and it has to be said that the opening sections were a delight to read: slow moving and full of insight, with genuine historical events accentuating the story's dramatic power.
For all its intrigue and politics, however, at its heart Midnight Never Come is a bold attempt to return English folklore to its roots. It's a reimagining of the faerie mythology, resetting it in period England and erasing many of the inaccurate clichés that have been built around it over the years. It's a similar idea to what Susanna Clarke attempted a few years ago with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but with its magic tucked somewhat further below the surface. Unfortunately, it's not an attempt that's entirely successful—and here we come to those RPG roots I mentioned earlier.
The novel's main problem is that Brennan rarely describes her faeries directly. For all the historical accuracy of the mortal world above, its faerie counterpart remains oddly underdeveloped. The faerie courts themselves are vivid—"The polished stone walls reflected the quiet murmurs, the occasional burst of cold, sharp laughter, echoing up among the sheets of crystal and silver filigree that filled the space between the vaulting arches" (p. 15)—but the fairies themselves are almost indistinguishable from the mortals. This is disappointing: the courts are supposedly filled with brownies, kelpies, hobs and goblins, but all we are told is:
And so the fae of London gathered in the Onyx Hall... Among the lords and gentlewomen were visitors from outlying areas, most of them dressed in the same ordinary clothing they wore every day. They formed a plain, sturdy backdrop against which the finery of the courtiers shone all the more brightly. (p. 15)
Just one of a handful of descriptions which, read out of context, would not come across as very faerie-like at all. We're told that these are faeries often enough, but the way they look and act doesn't match up with the telling. It's almost as though Brennan is assuming that just because she knows the difference between a brownie and a kelpie on name alone (after all, she's read the Monster Manual), the reader will too.
A related problem is that these supposedly immortal creatures often don't come across as any wiser or more intelligent than Michael Devon, with his mere 20-something years. The best example of this is probably Queen Individiana herself, a woman whom we're told is, "the most suspicious and politically astute woman [the faerie courts] have ever known" (p. 259), and yet is so completely oblivious to what's going on within her own court that she doesn't even realise there's a mortal plot against her until there is literally a war on her doorstep.
These quibbles aside though, there is a lot to like about Midnight Never Come. Although the faeries themselves may be undeveloped, there is something undeniably evocative about the idea of the faerie courts themselves, which we are told are, "not quite a city, though certainly larger than any real palace" (p. 89). There's a feeling of almost Gormenghast-like unease here—the same crumbling abandonment into Byzantine ritual, as these creatures of magic attempt to poorly imitate the mortal courts above them for no reason other than that they can.
And it has to be said that as the book goes on, its quirks become less annoying, the plot picks up pace, and the characters (Michael Devon in particular) turn out to be not quite so one-dimensional as they first appear. It's not a book that will silence the naysayers like my axiom-spouting friend anytime soon, but it's a solid read all the same. It will be interesting to see how much further Brennan can run with this idea now that two sequels have been announced (the first of which will be set around the time of the English Civil War), but there is much room for development within its excellent central premise and if the problems of this first book can be fixed then, inspired by RPG or not, I think Brennan might have something quite special on her hands.
R.J. Burgess is from Crawley, West Sussex and has wanted to be a writer for most of his life.