In the City of Agora, everything is bought and sold, and the records of all transactions are stored in the Directory of Receipts. Once you reach your title day (age 12), you can buy and sell your own skills and resources. Up til then, you are bought and sold by others. Mark -- not quite 12 -- has been sold by his father to a young physician, Dr. Theophilus, in the hopes that he will be cured of the gray death. Mark survives (in an excellent opening sentence: "Being dead was colder than Mark had expected."), and is put to work assisting the doctor. Dr. Theophilus lives with his grandfather, Count Stelli, and the Count's servant, Lily, in an towering astronomical observatory in the heart of Agora. The Count is the premier astrologer in a society dedicated to the zodiac and predictions from the stars. This sets the scene for The Midnight Charter, by David Whitley, the first of a trilogy featuring Mark and Lily.
Shortly after Mark reaches his title day, the Doctor quarrels with his grandfather and is forced to leave the tower. Mark is obliged to go with him, but Lily offers to buy his job in exchange for hers. Lily and Dr. Theophilus settle in the poor section of town (the best they can afford), while Mark begins an apprenticeship with the Count. Mark is being groomed for a debut -- where he will make three predictions. If these come true, his place in Agoran society will be secured. He discovers that the Count is preparing him to fail in the hopes of defeating the Count's greatest enemy, the powerful Lord Ruthven (pronounced RI-ven). With the help of a Mr. Snutworth, Mark foils the plan. The Count disappears and Mark -- under the laws of Agora -- inherits the tower. He goes on to achieve greatness.
Lily, in contrast, does the unthinkable. She opens a shelter for debtors -- without any expectation of payment. Lily is one of those do-gooders who make the rest of us look like pikers: Her compassion is infinite and her strength to do what's right is formidable. It is only Mark's friendship with Lily that keeps him from completely buying into Agora's marketplace. And when Lily discovers the secret of the Midnight Charter, that her and Mark's fates are inextricably entwined with that of the city, this lengthy and dense novel comes to an abrupt end.
While I appreciated the development of Lily's and Mark's characters and the dystopic Agora (a character by itself), this book ultimately felt like one long set-up. It appears that the next book (coming next summer) will be where the adventure begins.
The narrator is the talented Simon Vance. I think he mostly narrates adult titles, but it turns out I've heard him once, reading The Stone Light. He's very good, creating memorable voices for the story's many characters, and reading at a rapid yet completely intelligible (oh those British enunciators) pace. He seems most comfortable voicing cranky old men, as his voices for Count Stelli, Lord Ruthven and the all-powerful Director of Receipts are resonant, threatening and commanding. The younger males are pretty good too -- I did enjoy the combination of bravado and insecurity that emerged from Mark's slightly breaking voice.
Alas, though, Vance's females bring to mind the drag queen mentioned by David Sedaris in this NPR feature from Neil Gaiman (don't you love the expression "tapeworm" ... I might have to rename my blog). Lily, and several other female characters, are voiced with high, whispery, and well, pretty femmy voices. They're not particularly pleasant to listen to, and I don't know any girls and young women who speak like this. Despite Vance's undeniable skills, this narrative style keeps this audiobook from the realms of the truly great.
I'm intrigued, though. Both by where this trilogy might go and by Simon Vance. I'll look for The Children of the Lost (Book 2) next summer and maybe give one of Vance's adult books a whirl in the not-too-distant future.