A boy on the run. A girl determined to find him. A compelling fantasy looks at issues of privilege, protest, and justice.
All light in Chattana is created by one man — the Governor, who appeared after the Great Fire to bring peace and order to the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights represent freedom, and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them. But when Pong escapes from prison, he realizes that the world outside is no fairer than the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb light, while the poor toil away in darkness. Worst of all, Pong’s prison tattoo marks him as a fugitive who can never be truly free.
Nok, the prison warden’s perfect daughter, is bent on tracking Pong down and restoring her family’s good name. But as Nok hunts Pong through the alleys and canals of Chattana, she uncovers secrets that make her question the truths she has always held dear. Set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world, Christina Soontornvat’s twist on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a dazzling, fast-paced adventure that explores the difference between law and justice — and asks whether one child can shine a light in the dark.
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A monster of a mango tree grew in the courtyard of Namwon Prison. Its fluffy green branches stretched across the cracked cement and hung over the soupy brown water of the Chattana River. The women inmates spent most of their days sheltered under the shade of this tree while the boats glided up and down and up again on the other side of the prison gate.
The dozen children who lived in Namwon also spent most of their days lying in the shade. But not in mango season. In mango season, the tree dangled golden drops of heaven overhead, swaying just out of reach.
It drove the kids nuts.
They shouted at the mangoes. They chucked pieces of broken cement at them, trying to knock them down. And when the mangoes refused to fall, the children cried, stomped their bare feet, and collapsed in frustration on the ground.
Pong never joined them. Instead, he sat against the tree’s trunk, hands crossed behind his head. He looked like he was sleeping, but actually, he was paying attention.
Pong had been paying attention to the tree for weeks. He knew which mangoes had started ripening first. He noticed when the fruit lightened from lizard-skin green to pumpkin-rind yellow. He watched the ants crawl across the mangoes, and he knew where they paused to sniff the sugar inside.
Pong looked at his friend, Somkit, and gave him a short nod. Somkit wasn’t shouting at the mangoes, either. He was sitting under the branch that Pong had told him to sit under, waiting. Somkit had been waiting an hour, and he’d wait for hours more if he had to, because the most important thing to wait for in Namwon were the mangoes.
He and Pong were both nine years old, both orphans. Somkit was a head shorter than Pong, and skinny — even for a prisoner. He had a wide, round face, and the other kids teased him that he looked like those grilled rice balls on sticks that old ladies sold from their boats.
Like many of the women at Namwon, their mothers had been sent there because they’d been caught stealing. Both their mothers had died in childbirth, though from the stories the other women still told, Somkit’s birth had been more memorable and involved feet showing up where a head was supposed to be.
Pong wagged his finger at his friend to get him to scoot to the left.
A little more.
A little more.
Finally, after all that waiting, Pong heard the soft pop of a mango stem. He gasped and smiled as the first mango of the season dropped straight into Somkit’s waiting arms.
But before Pong could join his friend and share their triumph, two older girls noticed what Somkit held in his hands.
“Hey, did you see that?” said one of the girls, propping herself up on her knobby elbows.
“Sure did,” said the other, cracking scab-covered knuckles. “Hey, SkinandBones,” she called to Somkit. “What do you got for me today?”
“Uh‑oh,” said Somkit, cradling the mango in one hand and bracing himself to stand up with the other.
He was useless in a fight, which meant that everyone liked fighting him the most. And he couldn’t run more than a few steps without coughing, which meant the fights usually ended badly.
Pong turned toward the guards who were leaning against the wall behind him, looking almost as bored with life in Namwon as the prisoners were.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” said Pong, bowing to the first guard.
She sucked on her teeth and slowly lifted one eyebrow.
“Ma’am, it’s those girls,” said Pong. “I think they’re going to take —”
“And what do you want me to do about it?” she snapped. “You kids need to learn to take care of yourselves.”
The other guard snorted. “Might be good for you to get kicked around a little. Toughen you up.”
A hot, angry feeling fluttered inside Pong’s chest. Of course the guards wouldn’t help. When did they ever? He looked at the women prisoners. They stared back at him with flat, resigned eyes. They were far past caring about one miserable mango.
Pong turned away from them and hurried back to his friend. The girls approached Somkit slowly, savoring the coming brawl. “Quick, climb on,” he said, dropping to one knee.
“What?” said Somkit.
“Just get on!”
“Oh, man, I know how this is gonna turn out,” grumbled Somkit as he climbed onto Pong’s back, still clutching the mango.
Pong knew, too, but it couldn’t be helped. Because while Pong was better than anyone at paying attention, and almost as good as Somkit at waiting, he was terrible at ignoring when things weren’t fair.
And the most important thing to do in Namwon was to forget about life being fair.
“Where do you think you’re going?” asked the knobbyelbowed girl as she strode toward them.
“We caught this mango, fair and square,” said Pong, backing himself and Somkit away.
“You sure did,” said her scabknuckled friend. “And if you hand it over right now, we’ll only punch you once each. Fair and square.”
“Just do it,” whispered Somkit. “It’s not worth —”
“You don’t deserve it just because you want it,” said Pong firmly. “And you’re not taking it from us.”
“Is that right?” said the girls.
“Oh, man.” Somkit sighed. “Here we go!”
The girls shrieked and Pong took off. They chased him as he galloped around and around the courtyard with Somkit clinging onto his back like a baby monkey.
“You can never just let things go!” Somkit shouted.
“We can’t . . . let them have it!” panted Pong. “It’s ours!” He dodged around clumps of smaller children, who watched gleefully, relieved not to be the ones about to get the life pummeled out of them.
“So what? A mango isn’t worth getting beat up over.” Somkit looked over his shoulder. “Go faster, man —they’re going to catch us!”