Catching Midnight by Emma Holly
Originally published in 2003; now available as ebook.
This is one of the most unusual and original novels I have read. I loved it, but I am having a hard time describing it, attaching standard labels to it. Yes, it is a medieval-period historical—but it is certainly uncommon for a romance novel to be set during the Great Plague in England. Blurbs have called it a vampire story, but Holly’s “upyr” are not like other vampires you’ve ever read. And they are not the “normal” shapeshifters, either—they take another form by melding their physical and mental being with a bonded animal. Holly has truly created a unique and fascinating race of beings.
The book is labeled a romance and certainly does contain a great one, but most of the storytelling is about the heroine’s life and about the relationships between numerous primary and secondary characters in the world that Holly has created, not just about the romantic relationship between hero and heroine.
In 1349, ten-year-old Gillian flees from plague-ravaged London. Collapsing in the wild, she is found by two immortal, magical beings and given a choice about her future and the kind of person she wants to be. She chooses to become one of Auriclus’s group of “noble savages”, werewolf/vampire beings who reside in caves in the deep woods as part of nature, living for the moment and having no interest in philosophical concerns of who they are or where they came from or what the future will be. Years later, the now-adult Gillian does think about those things and wonders what the rest of the world is like. She knows she does not fit in—she has never merged with a wolf to hunt with the pack and she rejects the leader who wants her as his mate. So Gillian flees home again, to find a new life and new choices.
As she travels and discovers more about herself, Gillian finds that her “shape” is falcon, not wolf. This is very appropriate, considering her need to be independent instead of part of a pack, and her desire to see far and see much. Spending a long time in bird shape, she is caught by Aimery Fitz Clare, who is the master falconer and guard captain of his older brother’s keep. Aimery does not know the secret of his new hunting falcon, but wonders at her sometimes strange and unbirdlike behaviour. And at the dreams he is having, including visitations from a beautiful and otherworldly woman.
Gillian may spend her days in falcon form, but at night she prowls the keep to learn more about these people. Aimery’s family are complicated characters and the depth of their relationships and interactions keeps the story involved and intriguing. Aimery eventually discovers Gillian’s true nature, the elder upyr that Gillian met as a child reappear, events lead to Gillian returning to her pack to seek their aid, and a lot of conflicts and tensions between the many characters come to a head. Gillian has to face that running away is not always the wisest way. Aimery and Gillian must again make choices about what and who they want to be, and where their future will lead them.
Catching Midnight is not a fast read, this story requires involvement and concentration. But once you start, you will not be able to put the book down. Fascinating, intriguing, gripping, mesmerizing, exceptional, complex—and most definitely unique. I am going to have to find and read the rest of the series.