You go to see the wise man, who looks at you inscrutably and begins to tell a tale. "Five blind-folded men are placed in front of a mysterious object, and told to determine what it is. The first man says, 'It is a snake, sinuous and thin.' The second man says, 'No, it is rough and round. It is a tree-trunk.'"
"It's an elephant," you say.
"But...I haven't finished my story. It could be anything!"
"It could be anything, and I mean it really could be anything>
, but it's going to be an elephant, isn't it?"
"Yes." The wise man sighs. "You've heard this one before, haven't you?"
So, yes, this book is a bit of an elephant. Or possibly a story about an elephant, and not the elephant itself. Teenaged Gemma is in India at the turn of the 19th Century or so when some spooky stuff happens and her mother suicides her way out of said spooky stuff. Gemma is transported thither to England in a state of shock - mother dead, father lost to laudanum - to finish at a Gothic school for girls. She falls into navigating the social terrain of the school, while also determining the nature of the spooky stuff, blind-folded elephant style.
Before I let my snarking tone overtake this review completely, I want to say I enjoyed reading this. I was kind of tired and hungover from a very fun Halloween party, and just looking for something mildly atmospheric and readable. Despite the Gothic trappings - spooky girls' school, orphans, gargoyles, Gypsies, etc - there's not a lot of danger here, no real surprises. But the relationships between the girls, while being often stunningly anachronistic, were very well drawn. They read as cliches themselves at the first: the charity case, the bitch queen, the vain one, the new girl; but then well, gasp! epilepsy! cutting! bad family! etc.
That's not what makes them interesting, that it turns out that they all have seeekrits that change how we perceive them. I mean, let's face it, these are pretty unshocking shockers. What makes them interesting is how interact like real girls, having these transcendent moments of connection that they then dismiss the next moment, jockeying for position, selling each other out and protecting each other almost haphazardly, based on whatever adolescent need is at the fore at the moment. While I was regularly like, wait, there's no way a Victorian girl would think/say/do that, I eventually gave up trying to read this as historical fiction, because it's so not. (And really, it's not pretending to be.) This is Victorianlandia, peopled with modern girls. This will likely bother many readers - especially older readers - but once I stopped worrying about it, I thought the portraits of the relationships were pretty fab for the book's intended audience, which is, ahem, modern girls.
The best character is Ann, the charity case who is a devotee of sentimental fictions about plucky orphans, but when I first met her, I grooooaned. Here comes a story where she turns into a swan and Jane Eyre, leveling the very real social impediments to her life being anything but servitude and crap with her beauty and grace. No, not likely, and she doesn't; she's a doughy, fearful girl with some limited talents and almost crushingly sad dreams - sad because even the small ones are unlikely to be fulfilled. The cutting angle was dumbish, but otherwise the character of Ann was written without sentiment or mawkishness. The story does not condescend to give her the false charity of character-annihilating gifts, and I really admire the restraint there.
But! The plot is clumsy, and the magic/spooky stuff pretty predictable. Most of the action takes place when the girls sneak out, like, every single night, and I got tired just reading about how little sleep they must be getting. (Why, yes, I'm old. Why do you ask?) It also just didn't seem to jibe with the way time was passing, like the big stuff happened in seven nights or so, which seemed to be contiguous, but then months have gone by? There's a mythology related by Basil Exposition that doesn't make any sense, something about Realms and Orders and Goddesses. Further, when the girls visit the Realms, which are magical places where anything can happen, and I mean anything, they choose instead to do very boring and obvious things. On the one hand, hey! These are teenage girls! Of course their dreams are going to be a little trite and unformed! On the other, elephant.
My biggest complaint is the Gypsies, who are stock Gypsies from central casting, alternately sexually alluring, sexually threatening, and reading Tarot cards for fun and profit. Maybe this is just Gothic hat-tip, but these broad caricatures are out of tone with much of the rest of the story, which (smartly, mostly) understates Gothic conventions, instead hewing to more realistic psychological portraits.
To keep from ending on a bad note, I'll say again I liked it. It was a good Sunday read the day before Halloween. I see that this is the beginning of a trilogy, which makes sense, because there's a fair amount that is foreshadowed that never comes to anything. I doubt I'll be reading the rest, unless Halloweens in coming years find me sleepy and mildly hung over, looking for something lightly creepy. But this book can certainly stand alone, which is another point in its favor for me. So, happy haunting! Calan Gaeaf Hapus!