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Nathan’s review of The Midnight Kingdom by Tara Sim

Do you ever have a book that logically you know you shouldn’t like – that book that does everything that you usually complain about in a review – and yet you cannot help but absolutely love? For me that book is The Midnight Kingdom by Tara Sim, a book that commit absolutely many of my personal “fantasy book sins” and yet had me engaged and enthralled across its many pages.

The Midnight Kingdom is a very different book than its predecessor, the City of Dusk. City of Dusk was fairly contained and, despite having many POV characters, was all centered around a single conflict. Building off City of Dusk‘s cliffhanger (and yes, you absolutely need to read the first book because Sim throws readers directly back into the action), The Midnight Kingdom throws caution, and its many characters, to the wind. This creates a book that is big, bold, and very (very) scattered.

Our favorite young chaos queers are pretty much separated for the entirety of this middle volume. Some of them are just travelling to different countries, while others are trapped in different realms/universes/planes of existence/what have you. If you hate when fantasy books, particularly middle books, sprawl, you will hate this one. The characters at times feel like they are in their own books, with goals that are interrelated, but in such a convoluted way at times that it seems like they are having completely different adventures. This does have the dreaded side-effect of slowing the narrative way down, especially in the beginning, as each plot/character arc only gets to move incrementally before we are shot off into another POV.

This is usually something I put on blast in my reviews, but here it is just so much FUN. Sim doesn’t hold anything back, and each of the character’s storylines is full of magic, politics, and more. It at times felt like Sim wanted to make sure that every cool idea she had made it on the page – and so you get a book with demons, angry gods, zombies, magical bones, elemental magic, shade magic, multiple queer romances, the Underworld, a world where it is always nighttime, astrology, an East Asian inspired country, a South Asian inspired country, evil aunts, a talking head (literally), and this just barely scratches the surface.

Oh, and the macguffins! So many macguffins! Every character is on some quest to find some object, and at times there are even macguffin quests layered in another macguffin quest. It did honestly get to the point where I couldn’t keep everything straight and I was just vibing with the plot. Overall, the narrative tends to get lost in the forest by looking at every (and I mean every) single tree, until it all comes crashing together in the final 10%-ish of the book.

But here is the kicker – I never cared that the book was moving around and going off on all of these crazy quests. Sim’s world (or worlds, I guess!) is bursting with so much creativity that I was a kid in a candy store. I couldn’t wait to see what new random magical thing Sim was going to pull out of her bag of magic tricks next, and I was delighted to just whip around this universe and see all of the cool things that were bursting out of Sim’s creative brain. As I mentioned before, this won’t be the book for everyone for this very reason. There is a a LOT of worldbuilding and things being explained to you, but Sim does it in such a way that I actually wanted to be lectured at. Oh, now there are four evil kings that rule this realm that were destroyed by this magical woman who may or may not be an ancestor to one of our characters? Tell me more! Oh, there is a magical scythe thing that can kill them? Tell me even more!

More than anything else, I think what caused me to keep coming back were the characters. Most of the characters in this book are not likeable (though some are!), but you spend so much time with them that you really get a sense of what makes them “tick”. They are chaotic, messy, emotional, QUEER, and act as billiards balls that just keep ricocheting off each other, sowing more (often unintentional) destruction in their paths. They mostly all have the same goal from the end of the first book – destroy the gods who are ruining their lives – but Sim inscribes individual and complex motivations behind that goal into each character. Some are doing it to be noble, some to erase or run away from their past, and others for purely selfish reasons of power. I really enjoyed experiencing how characters would subtly act in different ways as they strove to accomplish their goal in the way that would best set themselves up.

In many ways, I found The Midnight Kingdom to be a more successful version of The Atlas Six. They both try to do the same thing – throw a bunch of hot young people with magical powers who are also kind of insufferable but also interesting and queer into a plot together and see what sticks. But while Olivie Blake decided to go down a more dark, serious, and oft-tedious route with the Atlas trilogy, Sim understands that this kind of book only works when you absolutely GO for it, finding the fun and adventure of throwing kind-of-unlikable people together. The Midnight Kingdom is a FAAFO kind of book, but in the absolutely best way I could use that expression! Sim does FA and she does find out, and what she finds is a book that makes for a fun and compulsively bingeable read.

So, yeah there is probably way too much going on in The Midnight Kingdom. And if anything I said here is an absolute “no go” for you, you might want to avoid. But if you like fantasy books that are unafraid of being weird and big and creative and magical, give this series a shot!

Concluding Thoughts: Tara Sim returns to her Dark Gods trilogy with a middle book that should not work, but I absolutely enjoyed it. Sim separates her characters across nations and realms, giving each a macguffin quest that feels like they are in different books until the they reach the climax. However, Sim’s books are so full of magic, creative ideas (SO MANY IDEAS), and chaotic queer characters that I couldn’t help but fall in love and blow through this book. This book won’t be for all readers because it is so scattered and chaos-driven, but if you like big worlds, big stories, queer characters, and evil gods, give this one a look!

 

Thank you for reading my review of The Midnight Kingdom!

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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