The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski literally made me stay up past midnight. This soft lesbian fantasy manages to be both incredibly complex and tightly paced, and had me shouting expletives at the protagonists and revelations.
Rutkoski returns to the world of her phenomenal New York Times best selling Winner’s Curse trilogy. Those books were set in a society modeled after a Romanesque empire, and featured a devastating slow burn romance, nail-biting political intrigue, and twists that make you throw the book across the room because, honestly, Marie, how dare?
But even if you haven’t read The Winner’s Curse, you can jump straight into The Midnight Lie. There are some easter eggs, like the game of Pantheon and war between the Herrani and Valorians, but these are given context. The most surprising part of the book is its narrator. It isn’t the princess some readers expected, but a girl from the lowly social class called Half Kith. Rutkoski tells the story of Nirrim, living in a walled Fascist city called the Ward. In this place there are no trees. There is no sugar or fine fabrics. Hair must be parted and styled a specific way. The Half Kith are afforded the bare minimum—unlike those who live outside the wall. Any infraction can lead to arrest or death.
Nirrim is an orphan, working as a baker for a feared Middling woman nicknamed Raven. Nirrim does what she’s told and is happy to do it. The saying in the Ward is “it is as it is.” For as long as anyone can remember, the Wards have been the same. Except, Nirrim can see the layers where there might have been a temple, a different color to the wall that encloses them, a god that no one can remember. She keeps that gift hidden, but her second talent of photographic memory helps her forge passports (the only way to travel outside the Ward). Rutkoski takes great care to establish the way this society functions. So after Nirrim winds up in prison, we know that there is no way for her to escape.
A jail cell isn’t exactly the ideal place for a meet-cute, but this is where Nirrim first encounters Sid. Because they’re both in the dark, and because Sid flirts and confesses she’s been jailed after she was caught in bed with a Lord’s wife, Nirrim mistakes Sid for a boy. Their chemistry, however, is instant. Sid reveals herself to be a traveler from a distant land. She’s a rake—rakes?—and she’s influential enough that she gets both of them out of prison. Despite being a foreigner with mysterious ties to the throne of Herran, Sid fits right in with the upper echelons of the High Kith. Channeling Nikolai Lantsov and Lila Bard, Sid is a gorgeous sea-faring schemer. And she’s after something that Nirrim’s special abilities can help her find—magic.
Sid takes Nirrim out of the Wards for the first time and into the twisted Ariana Grande music video that are the High Kith parties. Watching Nirrim come to the realization that she wants Sid, a girl, is handled with a deft hand. Leaving her home is Nirrim’s chance to kiss a girl. In the Ward where even your hair-part is Council-controlled, you can expect that this government also forbidden same-sex couples and controls population numbers. But among the High Kith, Nirrim is surprised that the same rules don’t apply. The Midnight Lie has an honest conversation about privilege, gender roles, who gets to be with their partners, and what happens when you decide to break the rules and ask questions. While it doesn’t have on the page sexual violence towards women, it does tackle emotional abuse and coercion. Sid embodies someone who has both immense privilege and eschewing the feminine role imposed on her for political reasons. Meanwhile, for Nirrim, everything is a new discovery. Every cruelty she’s endured is so normal she mistakes it for kindness. What happens when someone shakes you out of what you believe? Sid is the avatar for her change. Their love story is made stronger because both Sid and Nirrim have something to lose.
If you’ve read Marie Rutkoski before, then, like me, you were bracing for the revelations at the end. If you’re new here, well, welcome. Rutkoski delivers with her steady, sensual prose and characters that sweep you off your feet, and make your heart hurt. The Midnight Lie is a series starter that invites you to linger in its pages, and begs for the sequel.
The Midnight Lie is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Zoraida Córdova is the award-winning author of the Brooklyn Brujas series, The Vicious Deep trilogy, and Star Wars: A Crash of Fate. Her short fiction has appeared in the New York Times bestselling anthology Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, and Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft. Zoraida was born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, New York. When she isn’t working on her next novel, she’s planning a new adventure.