the guardian Fri 22 July 2011
In a somewhat apologetic-sounding foreword to The Midnight Palace, the author explains that this book for young adults was written some 17 years ago, but that he hopes it will still appeal to both the young and the young at heart. Now translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves, The Midnight Palace is a rather blood-soaked adventure story set in Calcutta in 1932, with a backstory that takes us back to 1916 in the same sprawling Indian city, home to waifs and strays of all kinds and creeds, both Indian and English.
Seven of them are not only inhabitants of St Patrick's orphanage, but also the founder members of a secret organisation, the Chowbar Society, whose stated aims include increasing their knowledge of the world, and sharing that knowledge to protect and support each other. They meet, at the witching hour, in a dilapidated house, christened the Midnight Palace.
As they all approach their 16th birthdays, they know it will be time to leave St Patrick's. But days before this is due to happen, the past of one of the seven, Ben, catches up with him, pitching them all into a nightmarish world of old murders and heinous crimes. It's on the night that the Chowbar Society meets for the last time that Ben and the others meet Sheere, granddaughter of an elderly Indian woman, Aryami Bose. Aryami has come to the orphanage to warn its superintendent, Thomas Carter, that someone is trying to kill not only Ben, but also Sheere as well, and that, furthermore, Ben and Sheere are twins, separated as babies and subsequently hidden to protect them from this murderer, a mysterious and powerful figure called Jawahal.
Failing to take the old woman's warnings seriously leaves Carter the next victim of Jawahal, and the now eight teenagers are forced into a desperate search to uncover the truth about Ben and Sheere's father, and his relationship with the demonic Jawahal, and in so doing to attempt to escape his revenge.
There's a lot to like about this novel. It's fast-moving and never hesitates, and it quickly sketches the eight young people who inhabit its pages as quirky and likeable individuals, from the taciturn artist, Michael, to the fiery and intelligent Isobel. It's also a story about stories: tales from the past are woven into the narrative in an elegant way, with the whole book framed by the narrative of the last surviving member of the group.
The book is not without its flaws, however, containing some simple contradictions that can be an irritation to the reader: to give an example, one moment we're told that Ben and Sheere are worried when they learn that Jawahal has penetrated their father's secret house, while a few pages later, they settle down to sleep in that house, safe in the knowledge that "if . . . Jawahal had been able to get in, he would have done so already".
Despite this, however, The Midnight Palace is an enjoyable novel, with a wonderfully sinister villain, plucky and resourceful heroes and some visually arresting imagery, most notably in the depiction of the Firebird, a deadly weapon whose fire engulfs a phantom train of murdered orphans.
Marcus Sedgwick's Revolver is published by Orion. To read an extract from The Midnight Palace and ask Carlos Ruiz Zafón a question go to guardian.co.uk/childrensbooks