Evie Johnson is a sensible, responsible girl not much given over to fancy, but there's no denying her world is becoming increasingly strange - and she seems to be in the thick of it. Sent to the village of Wyldcliffe in Yorkshire to attend a boarding school her military father has found for her after her grandmother suffers a stroke, Evie's determined to make the best of things. But on arriving in Wyldcliffe, Evie literally runs into a handsome, ill-looking young man on a horse who somehow managed to repair the broken glass in her picture frame as if it had never been damaged. And it's not enough that the Wyldcliffe Abbey School for Young Ladies is a large, brooding building run along very traditional ideas of schooling; it's also a school for the precious daughters of some of the wealthiest people in the country, and a cursed place according to the people thereabouts. Which Evie can believe: she evens sleeps in the bed of a girl who drowned in the lake the previous year.
On her first day Evie finds herself in trouble with the school's head mistress and her many rules. As an unwanted scholarship student, with nowhere else to go, Evie tries to keep her head down and even make a friend amongst the disdainful, elitist student body. But at night she goes in secret to the lake to meet the man who so caught her attention on her first day: Sebastian, while by day she keeps seeing what may be a ghost, or may be a figment of her imagination - a girl with red hair like hers, in period dress, moving about the Abbey.
Evie isn't going crazy. She's connected to Lady Agnes, whose home the Abbey once was in the 19th century, and who seems to be trying to tell Evie to stay away from Sebastian. Sebastian himself, as close as they become, continues to be a mystery to Evie. But as she draws closer to the secret of Lady Agnes, the past and just who - or what - Sebastian really is, she will have to choose between the legacy of a long line of women, and her love for a man who could very well be her dearest enemy.
Ultimately, this was a largely unsatisfying novel. With these books I very much get a lolly that fills the mouth with sweetness and rich flavour, pleases the taste buds, but leaves the body unnourished, the belly empty. I'm starting to think that the entire YA industry
needs an overhaul, and I would like to see YA authors going back and reading some of the older YA books, from twenty, thirty, eighty years ago, and reflect on why their own work is so ... superficial. So lacking. Even the 90s was producing more satisfying YA work than the new releases I've been reading. Though, there are some good stuff coming out of current writers - just not so much in the paranormal section. And it's a real shame.
Shields writes very competently, and employs none of the irritating little narrative devices that give me the shits, like constant reflection and anti-climactic sentences operating as paragraphs, though she does introduce some of her own. The dual stories - of Evie in the present and Agnes, through diary entries, in the past - are woven together neatly, revealing new information to us that corresponds with what's happening in the other story, but leaving the dual protagonists ignorant. Shields would end one such chapter with a line that is then repeated, more or less, at the beginning of the next chapter - once you notice this device, it becomes a bit too pat
, a bit too "ha ha yes that's cute moving on now." I did like Lady Agnes, though - she's one of those good
characters who can make me feel slightly nauseous, and yet Shields managed to make her convincing enough that I cared for her and her own predicament.
The atmosphere was rich, very gothic and quite heavy - the old-fashioned boarding school side of it reminded me of A Picnic at Hanging Rock
, sort of. I liked Evie - she's level-headed, not too stubborn, well, not until the end when she held on to her stubbornness a bit too long, and is ordinary and daggy enough to be a familiar, comforting protagonist. If she had been anything like the other girls in the school, it would have been alienating. She was definitely out-of-place in the school, and made the whole situation at the school look rather absurd. In fact, if I follow through with that thought, the school was rather unbelievable, unrealistic - plausible, yes, but also over-the-top. It's not quite like the weirdness at the school in Isobelle Carmody's The Gathering
, where the supernatural, magic side of things feels so organic and natural and the dark side of the story just right - by withholding details, the threat and looming danger becomes more tangible. Really, we're told too much
here, and the mystery, the suspense, the threat of danger, dissolves.
There's too much detail here on things that reduce
the novel, diminish it somehow, while those aspects that should have been dwelled on more - specially the relationship between Evie and Sebastian, but also the elemental magic side of things - where skimmed over too lightly. Evie and Sebastian are the case in point: I didn't believe in their chemistry, as much as I wanted to, because there wasn't anything there for me to grasp hold of. Their growing relationship is dealt with almost in passing. What did Sebastian see in Evie beyond red hair that maybe reminded him of Agnes? What did Evie see in Sebastian beyond a pretty face? Without establishing a deep and lasting bond between the two, the whole point of the story falls apart, or at most wallows sluggishly in still water. Predictable water, too - we've figured out everything so far in advance of Evie that you're not left with all that much to keep you reading. I needed the momentum of their passion to propel the story forward, and to really bring to life Evie's unenviable position at the end of the book. Instead, it slipped dangerously close to farce. It was also very fast-paced, rushing through the weeks and yet not really going anywhere. Again, it needed to slow down and really develop the characters and the story more fully.
There were definitely elements that I liked, almost despite myself. The beginning, with Evie walking along the village road and the man on the horse coming straight for her, causing a bit of an accident after which the man berates her like it was her fault, is straight out of
, and made me very curious and expectant about seeing more Jane parallels. There weren't any, or I stopped looking. There's a very nice British flavour to the novel that I really appreciated, despite the American spelling that looked so out-of-place, but if often felt like it was written by someone who hadn't spent much time there: a lot of the Britishness you would expect had been smoothed out of it, making it more bland and conventional. (I hate this nagging conviction that non-American authors feel they have to do this to make their books more palatable to Americans - I know, I'm cynical, but I feel it in my gut).
I honestly don't know if I'll read more of the series. I was pleased and yet deeply disappointed by this book - pleased by what it did offer, disappointed by how much it held back. My biggest complaint is about the poorly established love between Evie and Sebastian, and since the whole book - the whole series
- hinges on this love, you definitely need to have it cemented so well I, the reader, feel every shard of pain Evie does, every moment of despair, passion, loneliness, and aching love. Don't tell
me she loves Sebastian. They're just words. I have to see it, feel it, know
it for myself. And I hate repeating the same old complaint with every YA Paranormal Romance book I read.