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September 15, 2020

A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat ~ a Review

by MK French




A monster of a mango tree grew in the courtyard of Namwon Prison. Its fluffy green branches stretched across the cracked cement and hung over the soupy brown water of the Chattana River. The women inmates spent most of their days sheltered under the shade of this tree while the boats glided up and down and up again on the other side of the prison gate. (p. 1)

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

March 2020; Candlewick; 978-1536204940
audio, ebook, print (384 pages); children

The Governor creates all light in Chattana, and the rich easily live their lives under its brightness. The poor still toil away in the dark, and it's not much better than the prison that Pong escaped from. Nok, the warden's daughter, is determined to find Pong and restore her family's name. But going through the city's underbelly reveals truth that she had never been aware of, and now she questions justice.

In this world, the Governor is able to infuse light into glass globes, and it's of varying strengths and uses. The people have to buy the globes, so the poorest in the city can only afford weak violet light. Any crime, no matter how small, is punished severely, and children born during a mother's sentence are tattooed and forced to continue the mother's sentence if she dies in childbirth. Once there is a prison tattoo, however, these people aren't hired into any decent jobs within the city. There is a strict East/West divide within the city; one of the Governor's favorite proverbs is "The light shines on those who are worthy." All those with the most expensive golden lights live on the West side.

Pong is aware of this injustice since he was very small, and escapes the prison. He lives with monks for the next four years, taking in their sense of charity, goodness, justice, and the means of being a good person. Fate sends him back to Chattana after Nok and her family visit the monks' village. Nok at first has the same rigid morality as the Governor and believed in his assertion that laws must be followed to the letter in order to maintain society and safety. Seeing the reality of the East side is a wake-up call for her, and her own family secrets are laid bare. Pong also discovers the secret of the Governor's power, as well as his willingness to widen the divide between East and West to keep his rule inviolate.

The characters grow a lot over the course of the novel, and it circles back to the beginning elegantly. I love the world that we're introduced to, with some touches that are anchored in our own East Asian countries. Through this story, we are asked which is better: to give up control in order to be safe, or to maintain a sense of equity and justice even when risk is involved. This is a complex question, and there is no easy answer given. With teenage main characters, middle grade and teen readers can safely ponder these questions just as adults can.

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Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever.


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