Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Night School

Rating: 3 stars
Length: Long side of average (426 pages in hardback)
Publication: May 21, 2013 from Katherine Tegen Books (a HarperCollins imprint)-- released January 1, 2012 from Atom (a UK publisher)
Premise: Ever since her brother disappeared, Allie Sheridan has been kicked out of one school after another. After she's arrested for vandalism, her parents have had enough and send her to Cimmeria Academy, a mysterious private school in the countryside. She adjusts quickly, but soon she notices that her classmates won't tell her where they're going after dark....and she has to find out.
Warnings: attempted date rape, murder, detailed portrayal of panic attacks
Recommendation: If you're looking for a mystery-conspiracy set at a boarding school, this one is great-- some of the character interactions are too predictable, but it's a fun way to spend an afternoon.

There are some spoilers about the relationships, but I also consider them fair game because they might be triggery. The love triangle is obvious if you' a book or seen a movie with a love triangle in it. There's the polished sweet rich boy who wants Allie's attention and is easy to love, and then there's the brooding-and-sexy student who snaps at her a lot and has a tragic past. Go. 

What keeps these pages turning:

Allie Sheridan has been doing her best to get kicked out of one school after another. When she's caught vandalizing the most recent ones, her parents pack her off to Cimmeria Academy, a private school that keeps its students without technology to make them interact with each other. It's strange at first, but the curriculum challenges her and she finds herself opening up to new friends. The atmosphere of Cimmeria is well-crafted to be luxurious without verging into opulence, and the history of the place is quietly part of every scene. The chapel is gorgeous, the study carrels have history murals, and it all works because the students have grown to genuinely cherish the odd traditions and tech-free community. For many of them, demanding coursework and longhand assignments are oddly comforting, and it's easy to see why they come back year after year even though they don't have the privileges or freedom that they would in the outside world.

There's a love triangle, because of course, and it manages to save itself from triteness by focusing on the fact that both boys are real people instead of just sexy archetypes. Sylvain is an exchange student, wealthy and handsome and flirtatious, and he's interested in Allie even though all the girls are chasing after him. The twist comes when she gets drunk at a school dance when he pushes drinks on her and then he takes her outside and tries to sexually assault him. The event in itself is sadly not unusual, but the aftermath is: Allie refuses to be around him anymore on the grounds that he almost date-raped her and shows not so much as a twinge of attraction to him after that moment. When he apologizes and says that she isn't like other girls he's treated roughly before, she comes back with essentially "no, it's not ever okay to treat girls that way." She sets firm boundaries and doesn't let him weasel out of it, and that's a relief--this book mirrors a fair few paranormal romance tropes, and many of those are hazy on consent at best. Allie is drawn to Sylvain at first because he's kind and flattering, but when he behaves unacceptably she withdraws and ends up going with Carter, who can be rude and obnoxious but respects her.

Daugherty manages to keep the characters mostly balanced so that they feel like real people, and Allie isn't the only troubled one among them. Jo, her new best friend, has been through some similar rough times of lashing out at people she loves-- she's sweet and welcoming most of the time, but she slips back into dangerous old patterns when she gets drunk and doesn't know how to pull herself out of a tailspin. Allie herself has gotten past surface rebellion in a short time, but she still obsessively counts her steps and breaths and has more than one very realistic panic attack. She almost drowns during one panic attack and Carter pulls her out of the water. There's no focus on her heaving bosom or hint that he's being anything but careful around her-- he tells her to breathe and helps her find her emotional footing like he's had experience with it before, and that moment is more intimate than any of the kissing they later get around to doing. These kids are troubled and have their issues, but Daugherty explains those problems without glamorization and leaves more to unravel in future volumes. 

The red pen:

Cimmeria is meant to be the centerpiece of the novel, so the beginning is rushed. Allie is caught vandalizing the school with two friends, but they vanish from the scene almost immediately and she doesn't think about them more than once or twice later in the story. That part of her life may as well have been snipped off, and the transition from getting home from the police station to being taken to Cimmeria covers less than twenty-four hours and one ten-page chapter. Starting this sort of story at school can work, and a longer buildup to establish the contrast between the world outside the school and the smaller world within it can be fascinating (most obvious in the Harry Potter series), but Night School hits the clunky spot of giving the outside world and the characters within them just enough pagetime to make everything feel one-dimensional. It's an abrupt shift without room for a real contrast beyond her dramatic London makeup looking out of place at Cimmeria, and that makes it harder to appreciate the school at first.

This is all the harder because Allie adjusts to the school so quickly. She's been involved in vandalism and cutting class constantly for the past year, but at Cimmeria she meekly accepts detention for being two minutes late to class and works with the system. She's made a big thing of her rebellion, but the school cuts her off from technology an thus from any friends who might be reachable via computer or cell phone. She's quickly drawn to Sylvain and having spats with Carter-- while this does later flesh itself out, the beginning is very much a generic school setup without much depth or complexity. While the characters grow, the plot doesn't do the same to the extent that it could. There's a shadowy conspiracy of sorts, and members go on from Cimmeria's mysterious Night School to join the group at higher levels. A man with support outside the school is trying to seize control from Isabelle, the current headmaster. By the end, the reader understands not much more than that: people are up to something and there's treachery from within the school. Without some grasp of what this group wants besides control of Cimmeria (and we don't even know what about Isabelle bothers them), it's honestly hard to care what's going on.

I know I said that Jo's characterization was good, and it is, but it's also very convenient for Allie to have such a perfect friends with similar backstory and the two bond almost more quickly than seems plausible. When Jo is out of the picture for a while, Rachel steps up-- she's smart, focused, powerful, and knows every piece of gossip in the school. She doesn't have many friends, but she decides in the space of a day or two that Allie can be trusted, that she won't share any gossip about Allie, and that she'll help with whatever seems necessary. None of this makes Rachel a bad character-- in fact, I'd really enjoy reading a novella from her perspective as the outsider with connections everywhere. She just pops up at the right time to be a sounding board in the same way that Jo was, even though Allie had a few other friends earlier, and it feels more like the author slotting these two girls together than the natural growth of a friendship. Other characters wander on and off the stage without much focus as well, and it damages the cohesive group dynamic on which the book thrives.

The conclusion unfortunately snaps off almost as suddenly as the book started. Allie nearly dies and then wake up in the hospital wing, where visitors show up to bring her the gift of exposition about what happened while she was unconscious. It's hard to make rules stick hard and fast in literature, but generally speaking, building up a lot of tension and then cutting to almost none while secondary characters explain the events makes whole sequence less dramatic. Allie has one great moment of putting on her red Doc Martens and preparing to kick some butt and demand the truth near the end, and if the future volumes live u to that promise, this could grow into a great series.

On the whole, Night School is fun and just different enough that I'd consider going back for seconds. It's not going to revolutionize the genre, and someday I'm going to faint when there's female-lead YA with no obvious romantic interest or contrived love triangle, but I like that this murky conspiracy remains murky and isn't just "by the way werewolves." 

Prospects: This is the first in the Night School series, which is planned to cover five books thus far. The second book, Night School: Legacy allegedly came out this January stateside even though book one came out over here in May.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Hemlock carries some of the same tropes but has deeper worldbuilding, villains with defined goals, and two viable love interests instead of one love interest and one date rapist.

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