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The Midnight Charter (Agora Trilogy Series #1)

The Midnight Charter (Agora Trilogy Series #1)

4.4 5
by David Whitley

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In this spellbinding fantasy novel, newcomer David Whitley has imagined a nation at a crossroads: misshaped by materialism and facing a choice about its future. He has brought to life two children who will test the nation's values-and crafted a spellbinding adventure story that will keep readers turning the pages until the very end.

In a society based on


In this spellbinding fantasy novel, newcomer David Whitley has imagined a nation at a crossroads: misshaped by materialism and facing a choice about its future. He has brought to life two children who will test the nation's values-and crafted a spellbinding adventure story that will keep readers turning the pages until the very end.

In a society based on trade, where everything can be bought and sold, the future rests on the secrets of a single document-and the lives of two children whose destiny it is to discover its secrets.

THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER combines great storytelling with a compelling vision - a many layered adventure with powerful and timely implications.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Young readers who enjoy tales of mystery and fantasy will find much to admire in Whitley's story...Simon Vance's thoughtful, unrushed narration is the perfect foil for the book's brooding atmosphere. Vance is a master narrator who brings characters of every type to life.” —AudioFile

“[Simon Vance's] skill is his ability to provide just the perfect pace and emphasis to convey wonder and amazement as well as dismay and disbelief... His almost imperceptible change in pacing, pitch, and rhythm perfectly conveys the author's intent.” —Voya Voice of Youth Advocates

“Charity, greed, freedom, fate and political scheming are all woven through debut author Whitley's richly conceived world. Readers will be buoyed by every small triumph that cannot be recorded in an account book.” —Publishers Weekly

“Exciting and gripping from the first heart-stopping line, this first book in a trilogy takes readers only part of the way to resolving the predictions of the Midnight Charter and its relationship to Mark and Lily. Readers will anxiously await the next installment as they reach the cliff-hanger ending.” —School Library Journal

“Deft world-building and crafty plotting combine for a zinger of an ending that will leave readers poised for book two. Surprisingly sophisticated upper-middle-grade fare, with enough meat to satisfy older readers as well.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Whitley threads together a thrilling page-turner with the two young heroes' lives intertwining in surprising and illuminating ways.” —Shelf Awareness

“One of the most original and creative books I've read in a long time.” —Wands and Worlds.com

Publishers Weekly
In the walled city of Agora, residents literally live or die based on their worth. Everything is traded, from goods and services to lives—even emotions can be bottled and sold—all bound in contracts (“Everyone makes their way by bartering something, for there is always someone who will trade”). Just shy of his 12th birthday, Mark is sold by his father to Dr. Theophilus, who is researching a widespread plague. After recovering from the shock of being sold (and from the plague), Mark becomes fast friends with Lily, servant to the powerful astrologer Count Stelli. But the children's lives diverge quickly: when the doctor is cast out of Count Stelli's tower, Mark and Lily contract with each other to switch masters. Meanwhile, the city's most powerful citizens have plans for them, and both find their beliefs and lives pitted against forces they barely understand—and against each other. Charity, greed, freedom, fate and political scheming are all woven through debut author Whitley's richly conceived world. Readers will be buoyed by every small triumph that cannot be recorded in an account book. Ages 11–14. (Sept.)
Children's Literature - Suzanna E. Henshon
Agora is an ancient world filled with secrets and deceptions. One day Mark is saved from the plague, and Lily cares for the ill boy. The children meet in the Tower of Count Stelli. Later Mark and Lily exchange destinies for a chance to experience life outside the tower wall. Mark remains as a servant to the Count while Lily starts a shelter for the city's destitute. But the boy and girl continue to run into each other. Why are their lives intertwined? What is the secret link between Mark and Lily? Both children were abandoned in early childhood and seek self-identity. Eventually, the children make an important discovery—the Midnight Charter is the link between their lives. Many years ago the city elite created a charter; the founders of Agora were idealists who tried to create an equal vision of the city. Is it possible that Mark and Lily represent the Protagonist and Antagonist described in the Midnight Charter? Could their fates be tied to the destiny of the city Agora? In this exciting story, young readers will step into an ancient world steaming with prophesy and magic. Reviewer: Suzanna E. Henshon, Ph.D.
VOYA - Rollie Welch
Whitley stuns readers with his first sentence: "Being dead was colder than Mark had expected." Twelve-year-old Mark is in prison suffering from a mysterious plague. From this great opening Whitley introduces Agora, a city with a medieval slant. Readers soon learn that it is a joyless, futuristic dystopia. The author spends some time building this world, practically force-feeding scenes of grimy slums and suspicious characters. Whitley's hook is that on their twelfth birthdays, their Title Day, children are allowed to make a life choice. But the choice is controlled by adults, and children may be sold to the highest bidder. Mark, having recovered from the plague, learns that his benefactor is Lily, another twelve-year-old. Her dream is to help Agora's downtrodden population. They switch roles and Mark becomes an apprentice to ancient Count Stelli. Agora thrives on astrology and a behind-the-scenes setup has Mark predicting future events. He is ushered in as Count Stelli's prodigy. Midway through the story, several sidebars detract from the main focus and the story never really gets quite back on track. A murder of someone they know shocks both Mark and Lily. Emotions are bottled and sold much like today's illegal drug trade, but this creative riff fades from the story. Readers learn that the Midnight Charter is something powerful, but Whitley takes too much time revealing its origin. Mark and Lily are destined to lead the city, but it is no surprise adults manipulate their fate. Initially there is a promise of intrigue, but the story sags with too many parts failing to make a whole. Reviewer: Rollie Welch
School Library Journal
Gr 6–8—In the city-state of Agora (or "marketplace"), everything is for sale and all goods and services can and must be traded or bartered. Children are property until they come of age at 12, and those who are poor are sold like any other commodity. Two such children are Lily, an orphan who enters into a service contract with old Count Stelli, an astrologer. Most of Mark's family dies of the plague and his father sells him to Doctor Theophilus, son of the Count. Their lives intersect and diverge when they switch places. Lily questions the values of Agoran society and sets up a free shelter for citizens needing help. Mark is drawn in to intrigue and mystery as he becomes a prominent fortune-teller. There is a sense of darkness and danger at the heart of this society, which is embodied in the Midnight Charter, a document that predicts the coming of the Protagonist and the Antagonist, and that suggests that these two figures, possibly Mark and Lily, will alter their world forever. Whitley creates a number of memorable and full-bodied characters, along with a claustrophobic sense of a society set up as a utopia closing in on itself, and a morality that is at the extreme edge of reason. Exciting and gripping from the first heart-stopping line, this first book in a trilogy takes readers only part of the way to resolving the predictions of the Midnight Charter and its relationship to Mark and Lily. Readers will anxiously await the next installment as they reach the cliff-hanger ending.—Sue Giffard, Ethical Culture Fieldston School, New York City
Kirkus Reviews
Newcomer Whitley crafts a dystopic novel that reads like fantasy rather than science fiction, refreshing in its classic approach. The completely self-contained city of Agora (the inhabitants believe nothing exists beyond the walls) runs on commerce. For every item or service there is an exchange; even death becomes a "life-theft" in this world. Founded on the zodiac and about to hit its 144th year, Agora stands poised for success or doom according to the secret Midnight Charter. In the midst of plots and counterplots stand two teens, who may have been foretold by the Charter and whose opposing experiences take center stage chapter by chapter: fierce, wonderful Lily, who believes in good for its own sake and founds a charity, and fame-obsessed Mark, whose meteoric rise makes him the darling of a city where reputation holds so much weight. Deft world-building and crafty plotting combine for a zinger of an ending that will leave readers poised for book two. Surprisingly sophisticated upper-middle-grade fare, with enough meat to satisfy older readers as well. (Fantasy. 11 & up)

Product Details

Square Fish
Publication date:
Agora Trilogy Series , #1
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)
790L (what's this?)
Age Range:
11 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Midnight Charter

By David Whitley

Roaring Brook Press

Copyright © 2009 David Whitley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8879-7


The Staircase

BEING DEAD was colder than Mark had expected.

When his mother had told them all tales of the afterlife, she had drawn him close into her woolen skirts and painted a picture of another city, one where it was always summer. A world where the river glowed clean and bright, a land where all debts were forgotten. Mark had trusted every word, until he awoke in a stone cell, shivering and wrapped in a shroud.

His mother had been the first to go. At least she would have found out before him how wrong she had been. She had turned as gray as the stone. He had held her hand right up until the end. Then the Reaper had come. It had looked like a man in a black coat until he had glimpsed its face — smooth and white, without mouth or nose, but with two huge black eyes. Mark had shrunk into a corner as it passed by. The other children had said that to touch it was to turn to dust.

It came three times. The first time for his mother, then for his brother and sister. On each occasion he heard his father mumbling something and the low answering tones of the Reaper, just out of earshot. Only once had his father's words become loud enough to make out. He was shouting something about the water, that there was no other water to drink. The Reaper had left with a slower step that time, as if it knew it would be back.

After that came the tiredness, the lightness. Mark had watched the backs of his own hands turn gray. He knew it would be soon. Then there were only feelings. The sense of a burning mouth, and of noise. Of being half pushed, half lifted past whirling shapes and sounds. Of a final, blissful coolness filling him.

When he awoke, he was cold. It was obvious he was dead. Everything felt different. The gray was gone from his skin, the noise from the air. In life, the stench of the river had mingled with the tang of fish, clinging to his hair and clothes. The afterlife smelled of dust, with a whiff of vinegar. For a while he shut his eyes, drawing the sheets around him to ward off the draft that crept around his feet, but it was no good. He peered around the room. It was not large. The walls and floor were of gray stone. He could make out a fireplace where a few embers still glowed. And beside it, a door.

Mark waited, though for what he was not sure. An angel? Had he been good enough for that? He'd always helped his father gut the fish. And he'd cared for his brother and sister as the plague claimed them. Was that enough? Stiffly, he slid his feet over the edge of the bed and got up. He shuffled toward the door. It was old, the wood warping around the hinges. It did not look like an angel's door. With a shaking hand, he pushed it open.

An ancient stone staircase spiraled up before him.

In the back of his mind, something stirred. Something his mother had said about the legend of the man who was not good enough to get into heaven, who had climbed there himself. In the distance, up the stairs, he thought he saw a glimmer of light.

He raised a bare foot and placed it on the first step.

The staircase was uneven, the stone crumbled away in some places. When he looked down, he could see that it carried on, past the room he had come from, and disappeared into murky depths. After that, he tried not to look down again.

He passed doors. Thick doors of dark wood. No light came from behind them. What if they were where the damned went? Those who left their work unfinished, their debts unpaid. Mark had seen them dragged screaming out of their homes by the receivers, the men in blue. They were never seen again.

He went on, twisting higher and higher. The staircase seemed to grow steeper. His legs were weaker than in life, and he leaned against one wall. His fingers felt something carved into the stone. It was too dark to see what was there, so he traced it with his fingertips. Six shapes in a circle. Pointed shapes. Stars. Should he know what that meant? He tried to remember more of his mother's stories, but thinking about her was painful.

Then, below him, he heard the squeak of hinges.

He began to move faster. He scrambled up, pushing himself with hands and feet, his heart pounding. Behind him he heard another step, slow and firm. Nothing good would be coming from those musty depths, and he was so close to the light.

And then he saw it.

Above him one of the old doors stood open. Light streamed through from beyond — pink, orange, and gold. Mark pressed forward, clambering higher still. As he moved, he glanced back. The Reaper was on the stairs behind him, his black shape blending into the deeper shadows. He willed himself upward. Just a little further, just a few more steps. No Reaper could ascend into heaven. He reached the door, gasping, pulling himself around the frame, throwing himself into the room.

His eyes hurt from the brightness; he had to screw them up. Beyond the door was a landscape of pure white. And ahead of him, bathed in streaming light, stood a figure, a girl, staring into the heart of the burning radiance. She turned; Mark dropped to his knees, fixing his gaze on the floor. Mother had said that to look upon a dweller in heaven was to feel your soul burn away. His eyes were already on fire.

From behind, he heard the approaching step of the Reaper. He flattened himself on the ground. The angel would save him.

"Sir ... who is this?"

The voice wasn't that of an angel. It was wary, guarded, and unmistakably young. It reminded Mark of his sister.

"His name is Mark." Another voice, male, older, and soft.

Mark felt his breath catch. The Reaper was behind him now; he heard the rustle of its coat as it bent over him.

"He belongs to me now."

"Is he ill?"

"Not any longer. Isolation from further infection was the only way to achieve a full recovery. Certainly seems more lively now, although I don't see the reason for all this panic."

Confused, Mark opened his eyes a crack, turning his head slightly. The angel stood before the Reaper — he tall, in black robes, and with a ghastly, pale face; she in white, apart from the darkness of her face, hair, and hands. He tried to raise himself, but the angel turned her head his way. He looked at her imploringly.

"If you will permit me, sir," the angel said, her deep brown, almost black, eyes curiously meeting Mark's gaze. Then she reached up and deftly removed the Reaper's face.

For a moment, Mark felt dizzy, his head spun.

And then he came back to life.

The tower room grew darker as the setting sun, which had been streaming through the narrow window, sank beneath the ledge. The room, Mark now saw, was full of furniture covered in white dust sheets. The angel's robes no longer burned with light. In fact, they were not much better than his own clothes — only a rough, cotton working dress and a cream-colored apron. As she bent over him, a few strands of thick, black hair fell forward over her face, slipping loose from the white ribbon she had used to tie it back. And in her hands the dark-skinned girl now held a white, strangely shaped mask, together with a pair of thick, dark pieces of glass which Mark would soon learn were called goggles.

As for the Reaper, his true face was human. A young man, his short, straggly brown hair beginning to recede, a thin mustache perched upon his lip.

Mark sat up.

"Am I alive?" he said, his voice rattling painfully in his dry throat.

The girl nodded. "Thanks to Dr. Theophilus," she said.

She stared at Mark, her dark eyes taking him in. Then she turned to the man.

"Sir, the Count's note said that he wanted to see you at the fifth hour. I have taken him his meal."

The doctor nervously ran a finger over his mustache.

"Don't suppose you could tell what kind of mood he was in, Lily?"

The girl, Lily, frowned. "I would be ... tactful, sir."

She glanced down at Mark, who was still sitting between them, and said, "Are you hungry?"

It took Mark a few seconds to realize that she was talking to him. Then, at once, he found that he was ravenous. He nodded furiously. Lily smiled.

"Can he have food now?" she asked the doctor, who pursed his lips.

"I believe so," he answered cautiously. "Yes ... some food first, and then show him around. Grandfather and I have important business to discuss."

Lily responded with a brisk nod of the head and turned back to Mark. She held out a hand.

"First part of the tour: The kitchen is this way."

Mark put his own hand in hers. It seemed paler than normal against her dark fingers, but maybe it was because the usual grime had been washed away. Shakily he rose to his feet. He was taller than she was. She let go and gestured down the stairwell. From up here, it looked less supernatural.

"Five doors down," she said. "Go in and wait for me. If you touch the pots you'll be sorry. I just need a moment with the doctor."

Mark nodded again, trying to think of what to say even as he stepped back onto the stairs and began to descend. He was still trying to figure it out when he reached the fifth door and turned the handle. Then all thoughts of words were driven from his mind by the overpowering smell flooding through the open doorway. The smell of food simmering in pots over a smoky fire. All at once, it was like being back by the river, before the gray plague had come, where in the evening the different scents of a hundred broths and stews would lead him through the alleys and home to huddle around the bowl with his brother and sister and pick clean the remains of his father's last catch of the day. He was about to rush in, to pull the lid off the nearest one, when he heard a sound above him. Lily and the doctor were talking. He hovered by the door, curiosity fighting with hunger. Then, silently, he moved back up the stairs, straining his ears.

"... not to let the old man know," the doctor was saying. "Not just yet. He doesn't think we can keep another servant. I've tried to explain that I cannot manage without assistance but ... you know him."

"Very well, sir. I take it Mark will be helping you."

"As soon as he is well enough, Lily. He's my first full recovery," the doctor said with a touch of pride in his voice. "I'd better be careful."

Mark smiled. He didn't know what was happening, but whoever these people were, they were going to keep him.

"And ...," Lily's voice drifted down, "does he know yet that his father sold him?"

There was a pause.

"I thought you might break that particular piece of news, Lily," the doctor sighed, "as one who knows what it's like to adjust ..."

"As you wish, sir."

Numbly, imperceptibly, Mark's appetite died.


The Signet Ring



"How is the boy doing?"

"Much the same."

It was their ritual for the first few days. Lily sat on the stone staircase just outside Mark's room, stitching tablecloths or reading by the light of a candle. Every hour or so, Dr. Theophilus would ascend from his cellar rooms, make his gentle enquiry, his eyes full of hope, and, receiving the same reply, would nod with concern and turn away. Mostly he would return to his studies. Lily never went down there. She knew he kept human corpses in the cellar — the bodies of plague victims — for dissection. It was necessary, of course; if he was to cure this plague he had to understand it, but Lily shivered to think of working all day surrounded by their fixed, ghostly stares.

This time, the doctor sat down beside her on the step. He stroked his thin mustache thoughtfully, a sure sign that something was worrying him. Not that this was unusual.

"How long do you think he will be in there?" he asked.

Lily considered for a moment, wondering whether she should tell him about the sobs she heard when Mark thought everyone was asleep, about the red-rimmed eyes that peered through the crack of the door as she slipped in his food.

She looked up into the doctor's own eyes, seeing the heavy shadows underlining them from sleepless nights of work.

"Not long, sir."

Of course, the doctor was being soft. By law, Mark should have been working the second he arrived. She had, as soon as she knew where the dusters were kept in this ancient tower. But she didn't bear a grudge; that wasn't going to help.

The doctor sighed.

"I wish I didn't have to conceal him like this. Perhaps if he were free to wander the tower on his own he would adjust better, but ..."

The doctor trailed off. He always did when he thought of his grandfather. Old he may have been, but Count Stelli had lost none of his presence or his power. Lily put down her book, trying to think of a practical solution.

"Perhaps, sir, if you stressed how important he is to your research, as the first patient to recover from the plague —"

"Mention plague to the old man and he'll throw the boy into the street, and me with him," Theophilus interrupted with a shake of his head. "Perhaps it would be different if the plague ever touched the elite, but they think my research is worthless or, worse, dangerous. They see no profit in trying to cure a disease that lurks in the Piscean slums, and if Grandfather knew I had brought a carrier into his home, even a healthy one ..." The doctor turned his gaze on Lily, eyes too sad and weary for his age. "Why can no one see how much suffering it causes, Lily?"

Lily looked up at the doctor. There was an answer to that question, and they both knew it. Lily knew that the blindest people were those who would not see. That was why she always kept her eyes open.

Their moment of reflection was interrupted as, in the distance, a bell jangled, accompanied by a low rumble like distant thunder.

The doctor frowned. "Looks like the old man has woken up," he said with resignation.

Lily got up. "He'll be wanting his breakfast."

And like any other day, she left the doctor to drift back down to his work, his thin, tall shadow disappearing into the depths, as she climbed up the spiral staircase to the kitchen.

The Count had barely left his rooms for years, according to the doctor. As always, after waking she had read the note left for her the previous night on the bronze door at the top of the tower and obeyed the clipped instructions to the letter. Summoned by the bell, she loaded a tray with the Count's breakfast of bacon and carried it carefully up to the bronze door. Seeing that, as most mornings, it was closed, Lily slid open the wooden hatch beside the door and placed the breakfast tray on the platform within. Then she closed the hatch with a click and rang the bell, listening for the rumble as the food was winched up the shaft to the Observatory. Only once had she tried to enter uninvited, and sometimes she thought that her ears still rang with the roar that had told her she was not welcome.

She had never dared to do that again. She knew what happened if a servant angered their master. She had seen it at the bookbinder's, how the other girl had cried and clung to the legs of her master in vain. It was a rare master who would take someone in who had been thrown away or publicly shamed. "Damaged goods" they were called — the disgraced. Unable to work or trade or live. On the streets, with plague and thieves, she would be lucky to last a week. Lily's master, the Count, held her fate in his hands, and he was known for his temper. She never asked about the person who had worn her working dresses before her and tried not to notice that, although Lily was not large for her age, they were just the right size. One apron had been halfway through being patched, the needle and thread hanging loose, as if just put down for a moment.

When she returned to Mark's room, the door was ajar. Cautiously, she opened it further.

He was sitting on the simple bed, facing away. His hair had been shaved during his treatment, to check for signs of infection the doctor said, but it was starting to grow back now, a dirty blond color. He was already looking less thin than he had when he first arrived; he would be sturdily built when fully returned to health. As if he felt her gaze upon him, Mark turned, his face blotchy and pale, his mouth set in determination. He stared up at her defiantly.

Lily looked at him, tilting her head to one side. His gray eyes were dull still, but there was something new there, something she recognized. Curiosity.

"Want to see the tower now?" she asked.

He nodded.

After that, the next couple of days were easier. The tower had so many rooms to show, often all Lily had to do was to throw open the door. Mark's eyes grew wide at the simplest thing. When she showed him the old, musty dining room he gaped for minutes before gingerly stepping in. One eyebrow raised, Lily followed him.

"It's only a table, Mark," she said, tapping it with her knuckles. "It doesn't come to life."

"But ... it's real wood ..." Mark said, stroking it with his fingers. "Why would anyone make a table out of something this valuable? If my dad had this much wood, he'd have the best fishing boat on the Ora. He'd take me out with him and catch enough to feed all of us ten times over —"

"If you think that's impressive, you should see the silverware!" Lily interrupted hastily and stooped to open the sideboard.


Excerpted from The Midnight Charter by David Whitley. Copyright © 2009 David Whitley. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Meet the Author

David Whitley, a recent graduate of Oxford, wrote his first children's novel at age 17; it was shortlisted for the Kathleen Fidler Award. At 20, he was the youngest person ever to win the Chesire Prize for Literature for a children's short story. He lives in England.

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The Midnight Charter 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Nellie Baran More than 1 year ago
The beginnong is a bit sketchy but the story improves later on. If you didnt like this book, do not let that stop you from buying the next one because it is laid out better. I recommend th Agora Trilogy. Can't wait for the last book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kristine81 More than 1 year ago
The Midnight Charter is an intelligent book full of hidden things. It is set in the ancient city of Agora, which has been hiding from the outside world within its vast walls, which have no gates, for 144 years. Inside the city a secret society, the `Libran Society, exerts its hidden influence over the lives of the citizens and in particular our two heroes, Mark and Lily, two children who must try to thread their way through the labyrinth that is Agoran society. A society that has no money, so people must trade their goods in order to live. In fact more than just goods, if they must they can trade anything they have, their children, even their emotions. So everyone must decide for themselves what they value and what they could sell. The page-turning plot is full of adventure, mystery and meanings and secrets. Some secrets are held back to the end by master story teller, David Whitley, some things are hidden in plain view (e.g. try to work out what all the characters names mean). The vividly drawn characters are almost never what they seem to be at first sight, as slowly we learn what has made them the way they are and begin to guess what they might do. The Midnight Charter is a book you could read again and again and find more secrets every time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really liked the beginning and middle of this book. The end was a let downa nd left a thousand unanswered questions and had the sloppy feel of a writer who had written himself into a corner. The book was also paced medium in the beginning and middle but the pace quickened to an uncomfortable degree towards the end. It needed to be at least 3-5 more chapters long, and it needed to answer the questions and resolve the conflicts it created early in the sotry. The writer write well, it was engaging and not boring at all, I just wish he had spent a little more time and actually put a good ending in instead of leaving the end dangling for it's life with question marks all over the places: "what about ___?? What about ___? How did ___ end up?"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago