The Midnight Charter by David Whitley

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Puffin, 2009. ISBN 9780141323718.
(Age 11+) Recommended. Imagine being sold by your father to a doctor whose facemask and goggles make him look like the Grim Reaper. Heartbroken, Mark finds himself a servant in a large house where he meets Lily, an orphan. They live in Agora, a grey walled city where money doesn't exist, but everything can be bartered, even emotions are siphoned into bottles for sale. Children are possessions until their twelfth birthday and can be sold. If you have nothing to barter then a desperate life of poverty is the only option. Lily has bartered her life to stay working and she befriends Mark, teaching him to read in exchange for household chores. However treachery surrounds them. They are being watched by the Director and must discover what the Midnight Charter is if they are to survive.
In this highly original story Whitley has developed two main characters, Lily and Mark, whose fate I became engrossed in as they struggled to stay alive in an uncaring society. Lily believes in justice and doing the right thing and sets up an Almshouse for desperate people with nothing left to bargain with. Mark, on the other hand, as a successful astrologer with money to invest, becomes totally involved in survival. He espouses capitalist ideas with the aid of the wily Snutworth, and makes decisions about trade, regardless of what the effect will have on struggling workers.
Although they are operating on totally opposite belief systems, Lily and Mark keep contact, mainly through letters, and through the people who touch both of them. These secondary characters, particularly the siblings, Laud, Ben and Gloria, are very well developed. The idea of emotions being a commodity that can be bartered was engrossing and I followed Gloria's downward spiral into addiction of the emotion of enthusiasm. The author has a website for the series where a list of emotions that Miss Devine has for sale can be found and the reader can read her opinion on each of the characters in The Midnight Charter. I found myself pondering how I would feel if I sold my emotions like ambition or kindness or worry.
Midnight Charter is an engrossing and challenging tale that had enough intrigue, plot twists and humour, to keep me reading quickly to find out what happened next. I look forward to the next 2 books in the trilogy.
Pat Pledger