Scott Westerfeld, Midnighters -- The Secret Hour (Harper Eos, 2004)

Quick … give me a thirteen-letter word so I can anoint this new steel ruler with special powers and fight off the approaching darkling! No, it wouldn't happen quite like that. It would only happen during the 25th hour of the day, that starts exactly at midnight, and uh, ends there too.

In Midnighters, the strike of midnight is a whole hour long, experienced as such only by those who have been born at midnight, and for only those (as far as we know) who live in Bixby, Oklahoma. It's a time where everything is eerily blue, most of the world stands still, and creepy things called slithers and scary things called darklings come out to play. I mean, hunt. For non-midnighters (most people), midnight is simply another moment. They aren't aware that for one full hour they become "stiffs" -- as the midnighters affectionately call them -- and certainly aren't aware of this alternative blue realm. Jessica Day, fifteen years old and newly arrived from Chicago with her mother, father, and younger sister Beth, is a midnighter. She discovers this fact one night when she awakes to this blue hour, and walks out of her house into raindrops that have frozen in time. As nothing like this has ever happened to her before, she readily welcomes the help of fellow midnighters Rex, Dess, Melissa, and Jonathan, who are all also schoolmates.

Each of the midnighters has a gift -- a talent all their own -- that assists in navigating the blue hour and fending off the blue hour inhabitants. Rex is a "seer." He's the first one to notice that the new girl in town is also a midnighter. He also studies midnight lore, and teaches the others about their unique -- indeed, strange -- history. Who'd have thought math could be a special power? For Dess -- a polymath, who's rather dark and dour, math means using the lucky number thirteen against the enemy, in calculated ways. Melissa shuns touch and any kind of closeness -- everything is intense to her, including the thoughts of others, which she hears as clearly as spoken words. What is probably the most amusing of the powers belongs to Jonathan, who can fly -- or rather, resist gravity at will. The quest of this first book in the Midnighters series is to discover Jessica Day's power. It is not evident, and she appears to all (including herself), to be somewhat of a midnighter-klutz. Holding hands with Jonathan and soaring through Bixby's sky is the only way she can confidently make it through midnight.

The midnighters defend themselves from darklings and slithers by blessing untainted metal weapons (which can be as innocuous as an old car antenna or chain link necklace) with "tridecalogisms" -- special thirteen-letter words breathed upon the instrument with intent. This is magic here, midnighter magic, and the metal tools are more like talismans than real weapons, but they do the trick.

Midnight is a cool time -- and place! It's blue, all blue, with lightning streaking across the sky, strange dark beasts arriving unbidden on wing and claw, and a land left empty and unsecured for the young midnighters to wander and roam. Midnight can easily be seen as a metaphor describing a place for teens who might not otherwise feel comfortable anywhere else. Midnight belongs to them, like nothing else can.

Scott Westerfeld has created an intriguing new landscape, and an appealing group of characters. The secret hour is an engaging, and even safe place -- it offers these young outsiders of Bixby, OK a time when all the worries of their other world seem to vanish behind the import of midnight. Young teens will find at least one midnighter to relate to right away, and will enjoy getting out of their own world for a while, imagining the blue midnight hour.

[Nellie Levine]

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