the Little Red Reviewer

Burning Midnight, by Will McIntosh

Posted on: February 4, 2016

Burning Midnight McIntoshBurning Midnight, by Will McIntosh

published February 2016

Where I got it: Received ARC (thanks!)

What if, for a very small fee, you could be better at math? Or could fall asleep easier at night? Or could digest anything? Or had better eyesight? Or could hold your breath a little bit longer? Or any one of a hundred other things that could make your life just the smallest bit easier? Wouldn’t that just be the best?

Thanks to mysterious marble sized orbs that fell from the sky, everyone’s life is a little easier. All you have to do to reap their benefits is find a matching pair and burn them. Burn the slate gray ones for a beautiful singing voice, forest green for enhanced senses, copper to become ambidextrous, chocolate for enhanced strength, and so on. The rarer colors are of course, more expensive, but anyone can afford a common color, or even find the common ones in their own backyards and randomly all over the city. Orbs can only be used once, but the skills they impart last a lifetime.
Teenager David Sullivan, who goes by Sully, had his fifteen minutes of fame when he found a Cherry Red, one of the rarest and most valuable orbs. Young and naive, he was talked into selling it to a famous collector. And then a team of lawyers cheated Sully out of the money. Well, the collector, Alex Holliday, says it was done fair and square. It’s not Holliday’s fault Sully didn’t read the contract through.  It’s an event that’s come to define Sully’s life.
Is there such a thing as a free lunch? Some people feel the orbs are evil, that they are harmful. Some people refuse burn them, yet still buying and selling them to make a living. Sully and his working class friends often burn only the commonest, cheapest orbs. As it is, the little bit of money Sully makes at the flea market barely makes up for the family’s lost income when his mother loses her job. Sully feels protective of his Mom, he’s all she’s got.

But what are the orbs, really? Should we be burning them, willy nilly, with no thought of what it could do to us, long term? Holliday continues to brag about all the colors he’s burned, making speeches and putting his prized orbs on display in his department stores. He reminds me a little of Zachary Quinto’s character in the first season of Heroes, “collecting” every talent he can. Ugggh, I want to punch Holliday in the face.

When Sully meets Hunter, he learns what orb collection dedication really is. Hunter is singleminded, distrustful, and relentless in her searches across the city for any and all orbs she can sell. She needs to be. She grew up on the streets, and had to fend for herself after her mother died. She currently shares a slummy apartment with who knows how many more people. She plays her cards close to her chest. She wants Sully’s help because searching for orbs is easier with two people and he has good sales connections, but the last thing she wants is his pity or his charity. Searching for orbs and selling them to the highest bidder is a fun part time job for Sully, but for Hunter, it’s the only thing paying her rent and keeping her fed and clothed.

Forget the orbs and the crazy insane reveal at the end about what they are (and it really was terrifyingly insane). The best thing about Burning Midnight is the relationship between Sully and Hunter. Sully and his school friends often talk about how little they have – Sully is embarrassed at the tiny apartment he shares with his Mom, but he always has pocket money to put gas in his car, and their water or electricity has never been turned off. Hunter is a shock to his system – what the hell does he have to complain about, ever, when she’s the one who has spent most of her life on the streets? His friends aren’t even sure what to do with Hunter, she’s so different from them. There’s a conversation about privileged and class happening here, and McIntosh puts that conversation into the looks on the character’s faces, and their uncomfortableness and insecurities.  As always with McIntosh, the important bits are all showing, no telling, which is something I always love about his writing.

What do the orbs do for us? Sure, they might give us better sight, or enhanced smell, or cure acne, or ensure we never get a headache again. That all sounds great, doesn’t it? But even if you burn a free one, the cost it exacts from you is caring. If you knew that you’d never get a headache again, why would you ever again spare a thought to people who are wracked with migraines? If you know you’ll ace every math test you ever take, why would you care about someone who struggles through their Algebra class, barely passing the exams? If you’ve burned the orbs, your attitude towards those non-orb-burners who suck at math and get headaches is why don’t they just burn the same orbs? Post burn, your thinking has changed. The orbs themselves don’t change how you think, but your perspective does, and with each orb burned you’re pulled further and further away from other people, isolating yourself into a world that is of course the  best, and therefore the right way to live and think. Ahh, there’s the next chapter of that conversation about privilege and class, tapping me on the shoulder. Nothing in this paragraph is directly in Burning Midnight,  but it’s what I was thinking about after I read it.


Burning Midnight is fast paced, full of urgency and heartbreak and teen frustration at feeling helpless in a cold uncaring world. There is no preachiness in this book, McIntosh doesn’t push the reader to think one thing or another about what’s going on. I got what I got out of it, and I like what I got out of it. Other readers may and will get completely different things out of it. If you just want to read an enjoyable and highly entertaining YA novel, this book will give you that too.

Being McIntosh’s first YA novel, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Although it’s been a while since I read them, I have his Defenders and Soft Apocalypse seared into my memory. Would his YA fiction be as brutal and wrenching as his adult fiction? Would this novel include one of those unforgettable “Oh shit, this can not be happening” moments? For good or ill, McIntosh toned himself down for Burning Midnight. Are there scenes of intense violence at the end? Yes, there are. Should you give this book to a preteen? Probably not, although I’d say it’s perfect for anyone in the over-14 crowd. But if you’ve read McIntosh’s adult novels, don’t go into this one expecting the same type of heart shredding, soul destroying quiet moments that burned themselves into you. And if you’re new to McIntosh? Burning Midnight is a great, and gentler, place to start.

3 Responses to "Burning Midnight, by Will McIntosh"

I ADORE Will McIntosh’s stories. I too wondered going into Burning Midnight if it was going to be as emotionally impactful or heart-wrenching as Love Minus Eighty or Defenders. It wasn’t, but I was no less entertained and addicted. I could not stop reading and even stayed up hours past my bedtime to finish!


Thanks for this review! I enjoyed Soft Apocalypse but thought it had rather slow pacing at the beginning. It sounds like this one is shorter and paced more for a teen audience, which means I will probably like it more. I’ll check it out.


I haven’t read any of his adult novels, so I really didn’t know what to expect. Glad you liked this one though! Great review 😀


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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