Michael Deven came to the court of Queen Elizabeth I seeking advancement and patronage; as well as gaining a post protecting the Queen he also enters of service of Elizabeth’s spy-master, Walsingham. Lady Lune was once a favoured member of the court of Invidiana, Queen of faerie England and mistress of the Onyx Hall, but now her fall from favour sees her living a precarious existence. Desperate for a chance to prove herself Lune agrees to brave the dangers of the mortal world disguised as a human to watch the activities of Walsingham and his agents. Before he dies Walsingham tells Deven of a mysterious, powerful player in the politics of England, one who has access to the Queen and has been subtly influencing events for decades. Lune’s mission fails and she falls further from grace. While wishing for a kinder existence outside of Invidiana’s court, old friends tell her that things were not always this way and Lune investigates the origin of the Onyx Hall and a pact between mortal and fae queens. Deven is determined to find the person who eluded his master for so long, but he isn’t prepared for the supernatural world that he finds. Together Deven and Lune investigate what happened between Individiana and Elizabeth and how that secret history is harming England in both realms.
Elizabethan London is a reasonably popular fantasy setting, it is more specific than the Medieval or Early Modern European-style settings that appear in much fantasy, marking out stories set there as historical fantasy instead of historically-inspired. It is a place and time that can feature famous names and feels familiar to many, whilst still being distant enough in time and different enough in attitude to seem otherworldly. It is perhaps not surprising then that the fae fit so well into this setting, they are in some ways an old-fashioned idea and one that was far more dramatically interesting before the sanitised versions of the Victorian era. It is clear that the author has done her research and created a grounded, human world. As is often the case with primary-world fantasy the realism of the unmagical world lends credibility to the fantastical elements and in this case the Onyx Court hidden beneath the streets of London feels as likely as anything else. Brennan has made use of real folk beliefs about leaving out food for the Fair Folk as well as the power of swearing by God to ensure that despite their magic fairies aren’t too powerful outside their own realm. This neatly avoids the question of why magic folk don’t live openly that is often required as part of the suspension of disbelief in hidden magic stories. The story does go off in some unexpected supernatural directions after the interactions between human and fairy worlds are establish, but these revelations do not feel out of place and do not overpower the story. The time period makes a lot of sense as a backdrop for the story, at a time when Protestantism in England had faced various setbacks and the Church of England was only recently established as a middle way between ancient Catholicism and strong Puritanical beliefs, it is very likely that creatures harmed by displays of human faith would encourage a version of the Church that did not yet encourage much fervour. There is a skilful weaving of real events such as the Spanish Armada and the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, within the plot.
The story is narrated through the viewpoints of Michael Deven and Lady Lune, giving equal balance to mortal and fairy perspectives. The major theme of the book is the contrast between the fae court and the mortal court, and the Onyx Hall acting as a shadow or dark reflection of what happens above is integral. Through Deven and Lune we see both worlds in vivid detail. We are shown some of the ways fairies influence humans and how this influence has been noticed. We can also see how the missions and investigations of each character will bring them into conflict, even while we understand why each behaves as they do. The Onyx Hall runs entirely on the power and cruelty of Invidiana and so Lune is constant danger unless she can improve her situation, and any improvement is still reliant of the whims of a cruel mistress. Deven is initially motivated by a desire for advancement and eventual financial security, though his position is precarious for a while, once he is established in his role at court he also feels duty and loyalty towards his queen and his master Walsingham. Deven’s situation improves and he is able to experience more freedom and plan for his future, but Lune’s situation seems unlikely ever to improve. Even if she can win back Invidiana’s support she knows that she is trapped by the toxic atmosphere of the court, where loyalty is rare and fear encouraged. It is telling that Lune’s main form of escape and her source of information about what’s really going on is mostly to be found beyond London and the Onyx Hall in the hospitable care of two brownie sisters who have not been influenced by the events surrounding Invidiana’s rise to power.
The cast of secondary characters includes familiar names, as is to be expected in this setting. Queen Elizabeth is presented very early in the story and the power of her presence is very strong, even as the human artifice of her presentation is visible. Later we see Invidiana who manages effortlessly what Elizabeth must work at, but her presence is cold and terrifying, again emphasising the dark reflection theme. Sir Francis Walsingham, Principal Secretary to Queen Elizabeth and usually remembered as her spy-master, is prominent in the book. Deven seeks his patronage and then becomes one of his agents, only Walsingham is placed to have noticed the fae influence, even if he never discovers the unbelievable truth. John Dee, an advisor to Elizabeth whose work straddled science and magic, usually appears as a magician in fantasy versions of Elizabethan England. This book is no exception, though here Dee isn’t as knowledgeable or powerful as other fictional versions and is very much a minor character who has a small but vital role. Within the world of the fae there are scheming and ruthless courtiers, enchanted-but-damaged humans who serve Invidiana fanatically and the few allies Lune can find in her reduced state. The Goodmeads are brownie sisters who live just beyond London and the Onyx Court, they know a lot about Invidiana’s history and the truth of her reign, but their skills lie with hospitality and creating a safe space for those whose lives are destroyed by the faerie Queen. Then there’s Tiresias, the human seer of Invidiana’s court, who spouts madness and visions that cannot be interpreted even by the faries that surround him and is treated as a figure of fun. He insists Lune find a particular human and though she cannot understand him or his motives Lune is touched by his melancholy, then she learns more about his tragic history.
Midnight Never Come was first published in 2008 by Orbit Books, but the reviewed edition was released by Titan Books this year and the other three books of the Onyx Court sequence are being released by Titan Books during 2016 and 2017. This means there’s a good opportunity for those who may have missed the series at it’s original publication to discover it. I would certainly recommend this first volume to anyone who enjoys their fantasy in a historical vein or mixed with fairy intrigue.