Midnight for Charlie Bone

Midnight for Charlie Bone

I’ve mentioned the Harry Potter Effect several times over the last couple of months. This is observation that when a novel is incredibly popular, it is immediately echoed by a number of hasty knock-offs in an attempt to feed from that best seller’s success. It’s taken me a while to find a really good example of this but I have finally managed to uncover a fantastic one in the form of the adventures of a young magic-user named Charlie Bone.

Midnight for Charlie Bone was written by Jenny Nimmo and first published in 2002. It is the first novel in the Children of the Red King series and is followed by The Time Twister (titled Charlie Bone and the Time Twister for its American release – 2002), The Blue Boa (or Charlie Bone and the Invisible Boy – 2004), The Castle of Mirrors (or Charlie Bone and the Castle of Mirrors – 2005), Charlie Bone and the Hidden King (2006), Charlie Bone and the Wilderness Wolf (or Charlie Bone and the Beast – 2007), Charlie Bone and the Shadow of Baddock (or Charlie Bone and the Shadow – 2008) and Charlie Bone and the Red Knight  (2010). There has also been a more recent prequel series titled Chronicles of the Red King, for which three novels have so far been published.

Charlie Bone has always believed himself to be a perfectly ordinary ten-year old boy until he discovers that he can hear people in photographs talking. The revelation comes as a relief to his wicked Grandmother and her two crone sisters as it means that he can be sent to the Bloor Academy – a sinister boarding school that only caters for artistic geniuses and children with magical powers.

Although Charlie at first wants to ignore his power and return to his normal life, he soon changes his mind when his ability causes him to inadvertently stumble across a kidnapping. A decade earlier, a young girl was traded to the Bloor family by her greedy father and was never seen again. Coming into possession of a mysterious sealed box, said to contain the item that was traded for the girl, Charlie decides to attend the school in an attempt to discover what has happened to her.

Yet attending the school seems to be more dangerous than Charlie could ever have imagined. The heir of the Bloor family, Manfred, seems to have it in for him. To make matters worse, Manfred possesses the power of hypnosis and is intent on using it to find where Charlie has hidden the box. What started as an innocent investigation rapidly becomes a frantic hunt to uncover the missing girl before the Bloors manage to find a way to stop him permanently.

The trouble with the Harry Potter Effect is that, no matter how enjoyable the knock-off might be, it is impossible not to compare it to the novel from which it steals its thunder. I did find Midnight for Charlie Bone to actually be a rather fun read, but in the back of my mind I was endlessly completing the Harry Potter checklist to see just how many plot elements had been taken. There was the boy with dead parents (although Charlie does still have a mother) who is constantly abused by cruel relatives. There was the discovery of magical powers that he was previously unaware he possessed. There was the need to attend a special boarding school for talented youngsters. There are werewolves, supernaturally intelligent cats, talking pictures and even a climax that bears a striking resemblance to the Triwizard Tournament. Although Midnight for Charlie Bone differs from Harry Potter in a number of ways, it just can’t escape the fact that there is nothing original about its concept.

Nimmo tries to evoke a little of the magic and whimsy that most of us first felt when we discovered Harry Potter but it all just falls a little flat. The author’s writing style just is not as solid as Rowling’s and the characters have not been crafted with the same care and depth. To be fair, I think it is very clear that Midnight for Charlie Bone is actually aimed at a slightly younger audience and so has been understandably simplified to cater for the ability of its readers. However, this over simplification leads to a few leaps of logic that I feel may limit its appeal for more discerning teen.

Things all fall into place a little too easily for Charlie. When he discovers that the missing child is at the Bloor Academy, he immediately guesses who it is – pulling a name out of thin air. I assumed that the twist would be that he had guessed incorrectly but no, it turned out he nailed it. Additionally, when they break Manfred’s hold on said girl she immediately recalls who she really is, despite having been taken from her family when she was a baby. As I’ve said before, I believe that writing children’s literature is no excuse for lazy plotting, and this just stretched my disbelief slightly too far.

There was also a sense that Charlie had little control over the flow of events. To unfortunately compare this novel to Harry Potter once again, I point out that Harry is a likable protagonist because he is active and brave and does exactly what is required to save the day, even when his life is in danger and he’s facing wizards infinitely more powerful than him. Charlie hardly does anything within the novel for himself. Even in the climax, he has to be rescued by some older students and it is his Uncle Paton who finally is the one to save the day.

Yet for all the times that the novel fails to surpass Harry Potter, it is actually very different in a number of ways. I like the fact that non-powered characters play a really important role in the plot as it showed that you don’t have to be magical to be capable. In fact, even some of the magical characters were fairly mundane. There is no set curriculum of spells to learn in Charlie’s universe as instead, children are born with unique special skills. These range in quality from the awesome (hypnosis, telekinesis, lightning control) to the utterly lame (hearing photographs talk, making light bulbs explode) but each of the Children of the Red King only possess one and do not appear to have the ability to learn others. This is actually kind of refreshing as it prevents Charlie from ever feeling over powered or messianic.

The story also does not place the school as its focus. In Harry Potter, Hogwarts is kind of a character in its own right. The Bloor Academy, on the other hand, is a far more ordinary school and most of the action in the story actually takes place elsewhere. The plot of the novel is well paced and does wrap up to an ending that seems fairly solid but there still remain an alarming number of plot threads unanswered. Why are the Bloors kidnapping children? What was the fate of Charlie’s father? Will Billy Raven ever get adopted? Who is Mr Onimous and why does he always randomly appear when he is needed? These hooks are incredibly effective and genuinely do make me want to continue with the series to discover what will happen next.

I also hope that future novels continue to flesh out the characters, as there are many introduced in the novel that do not receive any development. Although I got a good feel for the characters of Benjamin and Billy (and Fidelio and Olivia to a lesser degree), a lot of the rest only get name dropped. Although we learned a little about a few more of them – Gabriel, Tancred and Lysander – over the climax, they did not appear much in the rest of the novel and so I was left feeling disappointed that I did not get the chance to know them a little better. The villains also suffered, all being characterised purely by the fact they were evil with no motivation stated for their actions. I really hope that they are fleshed out in future instalments as it would be a shame to waste some of the novel’s more creative characters due to poor development.

Wow, the review’s getting long so I should probably wrap up. Although Midnight for Charlie Bone is not unique or engrossing enough to attract the wide audience that Harry Potter did, it is a strangely enjoyable novel in its own right. It has an entertaining and well-paced plot and left me curious to learn how some of the hanging plot threads will wrap up in future instalments. Unfortunately, it suffers when compared to Harry Potter as it does take a lot of inspiration from this series and does not pull off these ideas with the same irresistible whimsy. Still, Midnight for Charlie Bone would make a solid read for a fantasy fan who is slightly too young to tackle Rowling’s magnum opus.

Midnight for Charlie Bone can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The Emerald Atlas | Arkham Reviews
  2. Trackback: Charlie Bone and the Time Twister | Arkham Reviews
  3. Trackback: Countryside: The Book of the Wise | Arkham Reviews

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