Nathan’s Review of The Many Shades of Midnight by C.M. Debell
Publication Date: 1 February 2023
Isyr. Stronger, brighter, more beautiful than other metals. Once the most desirable thing in Ellasia, now it is priceless, the pure Isyrium needed to produce it mined to exhaustion. What’s left is controlled by the powerful mining syndicates, and such is the demand for their Isyrium that even kings do their bidding. Yet just as the beauty of Isyr hides a deadly secret, so too do the syndicates.
A terrifying enemy is spreading a plague across the land, a sickness that kills or transforms everything it touches. Unable to contain the outbreaks, the King of Lankara begs the aid of the disgraced former Duke of Agrathon, Alyas-Raine Sera, a man who has spent years fighting syndicate expansion and whose resentment over his exile makes him an unpredictable, dangerous ally in the power struggle between the rulers of Ellasia and the mining companies.
Attached to the envoy to recall the duke, the apprentice surgeon Brivar finds his skills and loyalty tested as his service to his new patron uncovers secrets about Isyr and the plague that link it to the mining of Isyrium – and threaten the life of the man it is his duty to safeguard.
In their own separate ways, Alyas and Brivar must take on the might of the syndicates and confront the greed, murder, betrayal and impossible choices of a crisis that has been decades in the making – and the price of their failure could be everyone and everything.
Review for The Many Shades of Midnight
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.
I signed up for the book tour of The Many Shades of Midnight not really knowing what to expect. I knew that the book had something to do with a deadly plague, and I had seen Sarah Chorn rave about it on Twitter. I took the leap and signed up for the tour, and I am so glad I did because what I got was a powerful story about the inefficacies of our major social institutions, an amazing character study, and a lot of emotional and thematic depth.
“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
On the surface, The Many Shades of Midnight is exactly what the blurb promises. A deadly plague is spreading across Ellasia, killing most people and turning others into horrendous monsters. The plague seems to be appearing near the mining operations of the most important substance in the land – Isyr, a rare substance that is as powerful as it is beautiful. King Raffa sends a team to a self-isolated duke Alyas to ask for help on how to stop this deadly disease. This ultimately results in a huge magical conspiracy, involving the crown and the powerful mining syndicates who control the extraction and sale of isyrium.
The first chunk of The Many Shades of Midnight is standard fantasy fare. We are introduced to a medievalesque fantasy world, there are kings, queens, nobles, soldiers, etc., magical creatures, magical weapons, and lots of talking about politics. I’ll be completely honest that the book didn’t initially hook me in this first half. The plot seemed to spin in circles as characters talk-yelled at each other about the plague, isyrium, and the syndicates. I had a hard time connecting to the characters and the story because it seemed to be conversations for the sake of worldbuilding rather than feeling like natural character interactions. Debell dedicated a significant page count to stating what was a pretty simple plot, and nothing was really happening. The beginning of this book is not bad by any means, but I was considering a DNF at a couple of points.
However, everything changes when you move into the second portion of the book. What went from a kind of sloggy, circle spinning narrative turned into one of the most fascinating and beautifully told stories I have read in a long time. Things started to really click into place as the characters stopped talking about the problem and instead actually started solving the problem – because the solutions were often contradictory and rife with conflict. This is what drew me in and turned this book from a considered DNF to one that kept me up at night needing to see what happens next. It is not that the plot gets any more complicated, but the characters deepen to a degree that I couldn’t get them out of my head. They felt real, three-dimensional, and heavily flawed in the best of ways. The characters who had previously did nothing but talk worldbuilding at each other had meaningful conversations, ripe with their own complicated histories and pasts.
The Many Shades of Midnight turned from a standard plot based story to a character based one, and this made all of the difference.
Debell offers us multiple POV characters in her book, and the number only grows as the story progresses. But rather than turning the book in an expansive disaster like many fantasies, Debell uses her POVs to create tightly plotted book that explores all of the different dimensions of the same problem. Alyas wants to do anything to get rid of the plague; Tersa is a young political agitator; Ovisia has the economic interests of the syndicate to watch out for; and Esar just wants to keep the kingdom from crashing down around him. All of these characters are tied to each in these political and economic games, but the are all running away from each other in opposite directions.
As the book accelerates after the halfway point, we see the ropes connecting the characters start to unravel and tear apart. We can see the shaky foundation everyone is standing on start to crumble. It becomes evident pretty early on that know one can win in this conflict, and as the reader we are just waiting for the dust to settle. It becomes a story of not who is going to win, but who is going to lose the least. When dynastic political regimes, economic powerhouses, and the will of the people all clash, there cannot be a victor. And when certain people start to get it in their heads that they should take on the role of some kind of savior (noble in theory but foolish in practice), things can only get worse.
Through the conflict, and through the building dread as we know things are only moving towards utter disaster, we have Brivar, a young doctor who only wants to help the sick. He gets ensnared in the political and economic games of his superiors, and in the process is a wonderfully constructed reader stand-in. While Brivar is an important player in the political machinations within The Many Shades of Midnight, he is also a quiet observer, standing just enough outside of the political hierarchy to reflect on everything swarming around him. While Alysas was definitely the most interesting character in the bunch, I always enjoyed returning to a Brivar chapter to think, breathe, and get a slightly wider, less tunnel-visioned view of what was going on.
All in all, The Many Shades of Midnight is a powerful story about the failures of institutions to protect people. I’m not sure if this book was explicitly influenced by the disaster of the global COVID-19 response (particularly what we had where I live in the U.S.), but the book explores how responses to global ills are never focused on the benefit of the everyday person. They are intimately entangled in the needs of the rich and powerful – to make money, to keep power, and to not shake the boat. Whether this is denying a problem, minimizing a problem, or finding scapegoats in the “Other”, this is a structural problem that cannot easily be solved by one man with a hero complex.
I do think that The Many Shades of Midnight would be massively improved with some major changes to the pacing, mainly by cutting material from the first 1/3 of the book to expand the middle section to allow it to breathe more, but I still highly recommend this book to anyone looking for great character work and using fantastical worlds/situations to comment on the modern world.
Before wrapping up this review, I want to also point out that this is how you do a standalone fantasy story. There is a fully realized world here, but the worldbuilding eventually takes a back seat to the central conflict. I can honestly say that I don’t want any other books with these characters, and not because I didn’t fall in love with them but because Debell completed their arcs. This was their story and nothing else needs to be said. This was a satisfying experience, and that is so rare in speculative fiction.
Concluding Thoughts: Despite a slow first chunk, The Many Shades of Midnight is a beautifully complex character study that has some of the best drawn characters and character interactions I have ever read. Simultaneously a dread inducing tragedy and a commentary on modern politics, I highly recommend this book. As a standalone it is satisfying and complete, while also accomplishing so much in its 350ish pages. This is not only indie fantasy near its best, but speculative fiction in general.