Goodreads: A Wish in the Dark
All light in Chattana is created by one man — the Governor, who appeared after the Great Fire to bring peace and order to the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights represent freedom, and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them. But when Pong escapes from prison, he realizes that the world outside is no fairer than the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb light, while the poor toil away in darkness. Worst of all, Pong’s prison tattoo marks him as a fugitive who can never be truly free.
Nok, the prison warden’s perfect daughter, is bent on tracking Pong down and restoring her family’s good name. But as Nok hunts Pong through the alleys and canals of Chattana, she uncovers secrets that make her question the truths she has always held dear. Set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world, and inspired by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
A Wish in the Dark has a compelling premise: a middle-grade retelling of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables set in a fantasy world, where light shines only on the “worthy.” The attempt to reimagine a classic work of literature for a younger audience, and thereby highlight inequality between the rich and the poor, is admirable. However, in the end, A Wish in the Dark lacks much of the power I would expect from a book based on one of the heart-rending stories I know. In attempting to make the material more child-friendly, the story loses something. A Wish in the Dark is a solid book with a worthy goal–but not quite the standout novel I had been led to expect.
Writing a story based on Les Misérables was always going to present challenges, as Victor Hugo’s work has a depth and a scope unmatched by many works of literature. A Wish in the Dark attempts to circumvent some of these challenges by focusing on a smaller cast of characters during a shorter period of time. It thus makes the story something that is more correctly described as “inspired by” Hugo’s work, rather than a retelling of Hugo’s work. This is all well and good, but, if the story is not going to attempt a critique of society and its morals set against a stunning historical backdrop, I at least want it to move me with its depictions of its characters. I want it to make me feel the injustice of it all through their eyes. A Wish in the Dark failed to do that.
Presumably because A Wish in the Dark is meant for children, the story often shies away from describing poverty, injustice, and their effects in too much detail. Readers are given pertinent information about the gap between the rich and the poor: the poor have no schools, the poor are herded into prisons where they lack enough to eat, the poor cannot even afford better lights for their homes. However, much of these is described very broadly; I never really felt their hunger, their anger, or their despair. The characters do not burn for justice like Enjorlas and his idealistic followers. The tone is not really clinical but, rather, kind of just describing what is.
Since much of what is in the book also is in the real world, I would hope that the story would inspire some passion around the injustices shown. But, frankly, once our hero Pong escapes to prison and to safety, it is relatively easy to forget that others suffer. Even when he is in hiding, he is cared for better than many, and a few scenes of people begging in the streets do not quite illustrate the full extent of the injustice that is presumably being carried out in the city. Also disappointingly, the book suggests that injustice is solved fairly easily by peaceful protest, love, and democracy. While I recognize that children’s books tend to be upbeat and hopeful in an attempt to inspire people to change instead of making them despair, the too-easy ending feels a bit dishonest.
Critiquing a book with a laudable goal–to expose the gap between the poor and the rich–is difficult. It is natural to want to praise any story that discusses injustice and that seeks to make readers more aware of important social issues. However, though I liked the characters in a general way and though I wished them well, I do not know that pointing out that the poor suffer in many ways more than the rich is enough to make a story amazing. A Wish in the Dark is a fine fantasy. A solid middle-grade novel. It is not, however, a book I will likely want to read again. It lacks the depth and insight I would want from a book attempting to tackle difficult issues.