The Secret Hour is the first novel in the science-fiction fantasy trilogy Midnighters by Scott Westerfeld.
Published in 2004, the novel centres on a group of five teenagers – Desdemona (Dess), Rex, Melissa, Jonathan and Jessica – who live in the small town of Bixby, Oklahoma. The newest addition to the group, 15 year old Jessica Day, moves to town and soon discovers the titular secret hour; a 25th hour in the day, collapsed into a singular moment for regular people, but perceivable and accessible by “Midnighters” and inhabited by monstrous creatures known as “darklings” and “slithers.”
When the creatures become unusually violent and repeatedly attack Jessica, it is up to the Midnighters to teach her all that they know, discover what her power is, keep her safe and find out why the creatures want her dead.
This novel has a very interesting concept; there is a secret, 25th hour in the day that only persons born at exactly the stroke of midnight – hence “Midnighters” – are able to experience, which lends them special powers and abilities that they are able to use 25/7. It’s a cool idea and it lends itself to an intriguing mythology and world. It blends mathematics, numerology, runology, a bit of metallurgy, the paranormal and the supernatural fairly well.
The reader is given only what knowledge and information the characters possess; which is quite a lot but it is clear that it is only the tip of iceberg. What is divulged, however, is enough to have an understanding of what is taking place in the novel.
The Midnighters are all different and distinguishable. They don’t feel like stock characters but, they could have been a little more developed; Jessica especially as she is essentially the main character.
She’s kind of boring and annoying because she’s too perfect. She’s also quite bland and nothing about her particularly stands out. She’s too normal and average. There’s no edge to her. She’s about as interesting as a brick. She’s just an ordinary teenager who has extraordinary things happen to her. There’s nothing wrong with that and main characters are often like that, but they need to be engaging outside of their extraordinary circumstances and she is not.
The same can be said of Jonathan. He’s rather dull as well. He has one of the better powers, however, and the one thing that is notable about him is that he eats a lot.
Desdemona, Rex and Melissa are the most compelling characters with perhaps the most development; some of their backstory is explored in the novel. They are by far more interesting than Jessica and Jonathan.
Melissa is the least likable since she’s pretty much a bitch. It’s understandable why she is a bitch (she has telepathic abilities), but she has a very prickly personality that makes it hard to like or warm up to her.
Rex is a prideful know-it-all with an ego who likes to be in control, but there is a softness, vulnerability, warmth and compassion to him that makes him sympathetic and endearing.
Desdemona is the best of the five. Outside of the genius that her power grants her she is still intelligent, she is witty, sarcastic, nonchalant, determined and just all around cool.
The use of multiple perspectives to tell the story is a bit of a hindrance. Despite the fact that every time the perspective switched it was later in the day (the chapters are time stamped) and virtually literally everything each character did or said in their chapter was important, it still felt like the plot was moving forward rather slowly and that not much of anything happened by the end of the novel. This was mostly because the characters didn’t have much of a goal until well past the halfway point. The plot was quite aimless for much of the novel. It did move forward and there were factors driving that movement, but for the most part it was moving toward nothing.
This doesn’t mean the novel isn’t an enjoyable read, however. It’s quite entertaining and fascinating. The mystery of the secret hour, why it exists and how it works, the general lore and mythology and Desdemona and company and the characters as a group; their relationships and interactions with one another, are enough to keep the story engaging and keep the reader invested in what is going on and fuel their desire to know more.
The descriptions in the novel are vivid. Westerfeld succeeds in using language to paint a picture in the reader’s mind of what everything likes. Despite lacking some development, Jessica and company are believably written as teenagers; they act, speak and think their age. There is info dumping employed at times, which also contributes to the slowing down of the plot. Over all however, the novel is well-written.
The Secret Hour, although pretty flawed, is still a very good book. It has an amazing concept that is translated and executed well on the page, characters that are interesting – for the most part – and a captivating and story that is worth reading. It’s a little light on the science-fiction and heavy on the fantasy, but it should appeal to people who like Young Adult novels in those genres.
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