Taking as its subject and inspiration the Victorian penny dreadful, Twelve Minutes to Midnight is unlike any middle grade I’ve read before!
Book: Twelve Minutes to Midnight by Christopher Edge
Read before? No
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Nosy Crow Books. All opinions my own.
Penny Tredwell is the owner and author of The Penny Dreadful, a successful magazine in Victorian London – but she’s also a thirteen year old girl, which poses some problems. She hires an actor to bring her pseudonym, Montgomery Flinch, to life, but soon the two of them become wrapped up in a deadly mystery that will take all Penny’s investigative talents to solve. The novel rockets through ever-increasing stakes, and is, in itself, an homage to the dramatic, often paranormal, penny dreadful story.
I’m happy to overlook the farfetched plot as part of the genre – visions of the future induced by spider bite is pretty ludicrous, but perfect for the dramatic Gothic feel of the book – but I personally disliked the inclusion of direct references to the modern day. The only other book I have read by this author, The Longest Night of Charlie Noon, also plays with time and timelines as a plot point, but I felt that it did it in a more subtle and intricate way, whereas direct mention of 9/11 and Buzz Aldrin felt a little gimmicky, and threw me out of the immersion of the story. I also would have liked a note somewhere in the book that talked about Bedlam and its history, because I was uncomfortable with the way it was sensationalised as being full of cackling insane people, rather than the sad reality of many of the inmates. In a time where mental illness is becoming more and more talked about, it would have been nice to see a nod to the damaging stereotype of the ‘lunatic asylum’.
I did really like Penelope, who is a plucky, intelligent, and resourceful heroine. Her struggles with being overlooked because of her age and gender will resonate with many readers, I think, and the author doesn’t have her shy away from the darker side of the dangers she faces, which is excellent for kids who have a taste for the spooky. I think this is probably one for the older end of middle grade, and Penelope reflects that. We don’t get an awful lot of insight into the other characters, with the villain in particular being a bit of a caricature with no clear motivation, but Penny’s doggedness keeps the story focused on the plot.
For me, I think this is a 3.5 cat read – I enjoyed it, but I had some issues, and I think it’s rather niche. A lot of the things I enjoyed hinged on my having knowledge of the penny dreadful genre, and I don’t know how many middle grade kids will get the references in the language and plot. Those who are looking for something spooky but not horror in this age bracket, though, will find a very interesting read!