Book Review: The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School

Book Review: The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School

Well, this was a weird one.

See, for the first 1/3 of this novel, it's fairly typical YA boarding school fare: a minor mystery, a small group of enterprising young girls determined to solve it, quirky teachers, some small magics. Nothing terribly bad, but nothing terribly exciting or groundbreaking either. In fact, by the end of Pt. 1 of the book, I was ready to write it off as a yawn.

Then Pt. 2 started and suddenly things got a lot more weird. The book's synopsis gives you no hint of what you're getting into - a creepy, ant-based cult that turns the schoolgirls into basically mindless zombies. Only the girls with powers (the "Unusuals" or, more derogatorily, "flukes") can resist the call to become soldier ants, and after their quick relegation to the dregs of the school, they decide to fight back by figuring out what's happening and putting a stop to it.

I'm not even going to pretend to understand what happened in the last 2/3s of the book. The Purple was never properly explained, nor was the "villain" Rayne or the goals of the Hooded Conspiracy. It left me with a lot of questions at the end: who are the Other Ones? What the hell is Rayne? Why was her mother OK with all this? What was their endgame, a destroyed Earth?

What I do know is that after being disappointed by the first 1/3 (extremely so, given that I love Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series), I tore through the rest in my eagerness to find out what would happen next. The plot isn't always very coherent in the later chapters, but it tears by at a frightening pace. It's over before you know it.

Character wise, this book does quite well. The characters are almost exclusively female, but Newman writes female characters with great attention to detail. Perhaps the best part for me was that the story doesn't get bogged down in the typical YA fantasy love triangle tripe. The dearth of male characters means we are free to focus just on the girls: on their hopes, dreams, flaws and quirks. Each one of the main characters is different, and our leading lady Amy is a treasure to follow as she grows into her "wings" and realizes her leadership potential. I was also fond of Light Fingers, particularly toward the end where she started to find unconventional uses for her super speed.

And of course, since this is Kim Newman, the book contains many different references to other works. I'm sure I didn't catch them all, but I do enjoy that about Newman's books. 

All that being said, I'm still not quite sure how to feel about this book. Part of me really enjoyed it, part of me can't get past the blah opening and part of me is just plain confused. If you're looking for something a little off the wall, then I think I'd recommend this book to you.

Grade: 2.5/5 for the opening third, 3.5/5 for the rest

Memorable Quote:

This was a triumph. Rayne was a heroine.
She was an Unusual.
But...Amy’s stomach ached acutely. She wanted to skip too, but the wanting - a wanting close to a needing! - was wrong. It wasn’t her inclination. It was instilled by an external force. She heard a call her instinct was to resist.
No, she would not join in. No.
— The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School, pg. 161
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