Published by Delacorte Press on January 30, 2018
Donna Tartt's The Secret History meets Pretty Little Liars in this propulsive, edge-of-your-seat novel that explores just how far the elite at an English boarding school will go to maintain the social order.
There's no point hunting if there's no kill.
At St. Aidan the Great School, or S.T.A.G.S., new things--and new people--are to be avoided. Unfortunately, Greer MacDonald, token scholarship student, is very much a new person. She has just transferred to S.T.A.G.S., and finds herself ignored at best and mocked at worst by the school's most admired circle of friends, the Medievals.
So imagine Greer's surprise when this very group invites her to an exclusive weekend retreat at the private estate of the parents of their unofficial leader, Henry de Warlencourt. It's billed as a weekend of "huntin' shootin' fishin'," and rumor has it that the invitee who most impresses the group will be given the privilege of becoming a Medieval themselves.
As the weekend begins to take shape, however, it becomes apparent that beyond the luxurious trappings--the fancy clothes the maid lays out on Greer's bed, the elaborate multicourse dinners held in the Great Hall--there are predators lurking, and they're out for blood. . . .
Here is what I wanted S.T.A.G.S. to be: some sort of universe where Hunger Games meets Battle Royale and maybe The Strangers, a book where students get hunted like prey and killed in a remote location, mowed down like beasts or vermin by their emotionless, bloodthirsty peers. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what happened. Maybe I expected too much, but I’m not so sure that I did.
How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend
Greer, our main character and only POV for this whole saga, thinks in film. Her father is a nature videographer, and I suppose this led to her being brought up surrounded by movies and media, because Greer manages to relate everything she so much as glances at back to some sort of film reference. This was nice at first as it gave me a good visual, but as the novel wore on I grew tired of Greer’s descriptors and just wanted her to get to the point already. In a way, this explains my feelings toward 99% of this book: just get to the point.
There is a lot of exposition taking place in the beginning of this book, so I don’t discredit Bennett there – a world has to be built, we have to meet these characters who are not the boarding school elite (the “savage”), and contrast them to the ones who are (the “medievals”). This is like Harry Potter gone wrong, where the prefects are all Percy Weasley and they all spend their time in the prefect bathroom being racist assholes toward the first-years. Greer is invited to the love interest’s family home in the middle of nowhere, courtesy of a gorgeous embossed linen invitation boasting a long weekend of “huntin’ shootin’ fishin'” with the medievals. Greer doesn’t fit in at this posh boarding school, but this might be her chance to become one of the elite medievals herself! Two other “savage” students are invited – and while it feels a little off like something isn’t quite sitting right in the puzzle frame, Greer is too enamored by the lush landscape and beauty of Henry’s home to care. After all, he’s attractive and he’s talking to her, and she’s going to go huntin’ with him tomorrow!
By the time the plot actually starts to thicken we’re nearly 100 pages in, and it’s over 100 before something actually happens (one of the other “savage” students – Chanel – gets chased by hunting dogs). Unfortunately, that’s maybe 10 pages and then we’re right back to long, moony descriptions of Henry and how hot he is, how big his house is and how gorgeous it all is. It takes the second “savage” kid getting hurt during the shootin’ day before Greer realizes that – wait a minute, maybe something really isn’t right here! This book isn’t even 300 pages long, and I don’t think I got actually invested until page 200.
The Bottom Line
For all its flaws, the final 1/3 of S.T.A.G.S. was entertaining and engaging. I was interested in seeing what was going to happen, and what the murder alluded to throughout the entire book would be focusing on. (Greer spends the entire book saying something happened, but it was nothing compared to what would come – etc). It turns out that I was expecting a climax that was a 9 on a 1-10 drama scale, and in reality it was maybe a 3. “Murder” is a loose term for what the apex of this book has happen, and I was pretty disappointed to be honest.
It does wrap up pretty well in the final 20-30 pages, and I was about to give it 2 stars for a “big red shiny bow” wrap-up when it redeemed itself in the eleventh hour. But unfortunately still, this wasn’t enough to save S.T.A.G.S. from its staggering banality. I wanted it to work – I really did – but the exposition and constant movie references just didn’t keep me rooted. A lot of people seem to really love this book – I’m just not one of them.
“It was a bit like that bit in Beauty and the Beast when the Beast dances with Belle. Except there was no Belle. And no music. And no candlelight. Just a beast.”