I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
WOW! I am still reeling from this book even though I finished it hours ago, and if I didn't have a serious need to get through some books on my reading list before school starts, I would delve right back into S.T.A.G.S again from the beginning to see how many more little details I missed. I've already tweeted and told friends that this book is like Hogwarts meets How to Get Away With Murder, but there is honestly so much in this book to get excited about, and I hope I can control my excitement enough to write a coherent review.
S.T.A.G.S stands for St Aidan the Great School. It is the prestigious boarding school that Greer, the protagonist, has won a scholarship to attend for sixth form. Intimidated and lonely, surrounded by children who are wealthier than her and know all the rules better than she does, she is intrigued and excited when she receives The Invitation. She has been invited to spend a weekend 'huntin, shootin, fishin,' at Longcross, the manor house belonging to the school's golden boy, Henry de Warlencourt, along with his gang, called the Medievals, and two other misfits. However, Greer's belief that she might have finally been welcomed into S.T.A.G.S begins to waver. As each of the bloodsports ends in a well-timed 'accident', the three guests begin to wonder whether they are the predators, or the prey.
This novel has a mystery feel to it from the beginning. I loved how Bennett uses foreboding so well, instantly telling us from the start that a 'murder' takes place, and that there is something ominous going on in S.T.A.G.S, and yet, like Greer herself, we can't quite figure out what it is. Just as she does, we're suspicious of characters, and then we see them in a slightly more flattering light and we wonder whether they're really the bad guys at all, or whether they're just misunderstood. I liked how she alternated tense scenes, like the hunting scenes, with Downton Abbey-esque dinners, more romantic scenes, or slightly friendlier chats with the Medievals. It meant that your idea of the characters was never set in stone, and they changed with every scene. Until the very last page, you can't quite put your finger down on the problem, you can't figure out who the real bad guy is, where the 'bad guys' end and the 'good guys' begin, and how Greer and her friends will ever be able to escape.
The plot moves forward constantly, and even where the pace of the story is slower, there is always tension bubbling away beneath the surface. Every conversation that the characters have, every room that we enter, every little detail means something, and you are kept on your toes throughout. I loved the way that the three guests at Longcross, Greer, Nel, and Shafeen, come together to try and figure out what is really going on at Longcross, and discover that the seemingly harmless traditions of not using technology hide something far darker underneath. I never felt that Bennett's writing dragged the story down, even though she often described things like buildings and dresses, because she did so in a way that felt natural to Greer's voice and fit in with the story, and always picked up details that she had mentioned and made them important later in the story. She has an excellent skill at weaving details and storylines together in a way that you suspect they will add up to something more significant, but can't quite figure it out. In fact, right up until the last page, she is pulling tricks out of her sleeve and shocking you.
Underneath all of this excitement, mystery, and suspense, there are deeper themes of class, race, and tradition. Even if the setting of S.T.A.G.S and Longcross is as establishment as it comes, and as alien to you as it was to Greer and me, this book is not Downton Abbey or Hogwarts-esque. It isn't even, as Greer jokes, Mean Girls-esque. It is dark, thrilling, and thought-provoking. It makes you question establishment and traditions, and also wonder what deep, dark secrets could be lurking in plain sight.
I've said this in a few reviews recently, but this is definitely one of my books of the year, and even after writing this review, I'm still reeling. I just know that I'll read anything that M.A. Bennett writes after this.