This is a story inspired by Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, and it is so brilliant (yes, this is a pun) in the way it plays with Hugo's characters and themes, translating them into a middle-grade plot about children who start off believing what society has labeled them. Both protagonists learn not only that they can choose to define themselves, but that they can choose to help each other, and that a lot of people all choosing to stand together can change society. All in a gorgeous Thai-inspired world with magic that cleverly illuminates (can't help myself) the social commentary: the brightest lights are reserved for the rich, and Soontornvat does so much with that simple metaphor.
Nok is harder to like, at first, and I didn't want the narration to keep switching into her point of view. But her rigid self-righteousness is a product of her upbringing, and she is trapped every bit as much as Pong by the lies the Governor tells. The Governor is a well-done villain, scary and believable in his reasonableness.
There are some great friendship and found-family moments, gentle and heartfelt wisdom, and a stirring Les Mis-worthy conclusion. This one was shortlisted for the 2020 Cybils, and deserves all the attention it's getting. (Soontornvat won a Cybil for her non-fiction book about the Thai cave rescue, which I really want to read!)
As sweet and juicy as a perfectly ripe mango! For more delicious middle-grade reads, see what everybody is reviewing at Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle.