No, nobody is the new Gemma Doyle. But this is the next book I will give to my readers who love A Great and Terrible Beauty. My cousin lent me this book AGES ago and I finally picked it up and read it, because I am trying to turn over a new leaf where I am less of an asshole when it comes to borrowing, hoarding, acquiring, and reading books. And my best friend assured me it was good when I was having one of my reading crises where I can’t decide what to read next, so I took her advice.
I’m really glad. Blythewood (IndieBound) by Carol Goodman is fairly excellent. It has many of the things that make me like a book: boarding school, magic living in (or on the edge of) the real world rather than high fantasy, social commentary, and feminism.
I didn’t really look closely at the flap copy, which is good, because then I may have put it down again. It just sounds so dime a dozen, so Chosen One, so knockoff:
At seventeen, Avaline Hall has already buried her mother, survived a horrific factory fire, and escaped from an insane asylum. Now she’s on her way to Blythewood Academy, the elite boarding school in New York’s mist-shrouded Hudson Valley that her mother attended—and was expelled from. Though she’s afraid her high society classmates won’t accept a factory girl in their midst, Ava is desperate to unravel her family’s murky past, discover the identity of the father she’s never known, and perhaps finally understand her mother’s abrupt suicide. She’s also on the hunt for the identity of the mysterious boy who rescued her from the fire. And she suspects the answers she seeks lie at Blythewood.
But nothing could have prepared her for the dark secret of what Blythewood is, and what its students are being trained to do. Haunted by dreams of a winged boy and pursued by visions of a sinister man who breathes smoke, Ava isn’t sure if she’s losing her mind or getting closer to the truth. And the more rigorously Ava digs into the past, the more dangerous her present becomes.
Vivid and atmospheric, full of mystery and magic, this romantic page-turner by bestselling author Carol Goodman tells the story of a world on the brink of change and the girl who is the catalyst for it all.
Right? Kinda ehh. But it’s actually fantastic! You know how a lot of historical fantasy is not historical fiction in any way except that it gives authors an excuse to have pretty dresses and tired, simplistic gender politics? Not so with Blythewood. The Cinderella aspect of the story may be a bit too easy in coming, but I totally love how inextricable the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, the labor movement, and class politics are from the story’s boarding-school-that-is-not-what-it-seems major plot. Ava may be more concerned with the big picture of how what she thought was a finishing school is actually a magical stronghold that trains women to be badass falconers, hunters, and warriors*, but on the day-to-day, she is constantly reminded of her place in society as the fallen, working-class granddaughter of a wealthy woman; as a factory worker whose hands are not soft like her classmates’; as an illegitimate child; as the new girl at school; as the unaccustomed-to-magic new kid who has a legacy behind her that she never knew (total Sorcerer’s Stone stuff here). And later on in the novel, we see other historical events of 1911-1912 woven seamlessly into Ava’s life and into the magical logic Goodman has built. It’s quite impressive.
Let’s also talk about how there’s no love triangle. There’s an actual friendship between Ava and a boy, and he actually treats her like his equal. He treats all girls like his equals, because he got kicked out of his boys’ school and is now a boy going to a girls’ finishing school (at least to an outsider; we know that it’s just a school for supernatural badassery and a little bit of supernatural racial politics and eugenics, so anybody is invited, regardless of sex). In addition to that little bit of feminism is just a bunch of girls who are all into falconry and pretty dresses and history and crushes and sneaking around and all sorts of awesome things. You know, because real women get to like whatever the fuck they want and that’s their feminism.
I just love that rather than using historical settings as a crutch to avoid contemporary technology or full world building, this book fully engages with the history and the magic and the genre. It places Blythewood, the school, firmly in upstate New York, firmly in the burbling tumult of the 1910s, and firmly on the border between Earth and Faerie. It indulges in the tropes of boarding school novels, from weird midnight traditions to legacy student drama. And there are so many parallels with the Gemma Doyle trilogy as far as mysterious mothers, mysterious boys who follow the protagonist from her home to the school, and mysterious visions and dreams. But it doesn’t read as a knockoff because for all the strong fantasy elements and some unsurprising plot twists, there are equally strong true historical elements which simultaneously ground the story but also give the fantasy more life because the magic has something to connect with and rub up against. I want the sequels like now, okay?
*another readalike, though this is less funny and certainly less indulgent, is Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series, if you’re more interested in the fun of supernatural boarding school than the feminism of supernatural boarding school – and I’m not judging, because I think both are awesome.