Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Review: A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat


Sometimes when you are in the middle of a book and people ask you what it's about, you can give them a simple description that sums it up quite nicely. Perhaps it makes them think of similar books they have read, and they nod and smile and say they might want to read it when you are through.

Other times, you look up, clear your thoughts a moment, and say, "It's a Thai fantasy based on Les Miserables."

Blink. Blink. Crickets.

Need a more detailed description?

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.

While it is not likely that many middle school readers are familiar with the plot twists and characters of Les Miserables, as an adult reader I enjoyed the twists. The basic themes - redemption, class disparity, power, changing perspectives, etc. - are still there, but (small spoiler) Gavroche does not end up riddled with bullets! 

Sontornvat weaves a deft tale of realistic fantasy that will please readers of all ages, whether they have never heard of Les Mes, or whether they have had the entire score memorized since college. Three-dimensional characters are seldom all good or all bad (notable but still interesting exceptions in Father Cham and the Governor). A welcome addition to middle grade fantasy fiction, which has long been filled with Caucasian characters centered in Europe or the US.