I’ve been an ardent Flavia fan since the first book in the series came out, so it pains me to say that this book is the weakest of the series. I’ll assume you’re up to speed on Flavia, eleven-year-old chemist, sleuth, and now heiress (and if you’re not, you MUST pick up a copy of the first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), so I’ll launch straight into this book.
Flavia has been sent off to Miss Bodycote’s Academy in Toronto, her mother’s alma mater: a whole new setting, made necessary by the fact that a tiny village like Bishop’s Lacey had already seen too many murders in one year for any more to be believable (truth be told, it was stretching that believability by about the fourth book). Being Canadian myself, I was excited to see what this trip would bring.
Well, Flavia is still Flavia – determined, resourceful, and (truth be told) far too insightful for her years—but the setting, the plot, and the writing seemed very watered-down compared to the previous books in the series.
Flavia stumbles across a corpse on her first day at her new school, which is what we’ve come to expect of her, but the mystery itself never gripped me the way the other books did. No one seemed all that concerned that there had been a murder. What weakened the book the most for me, however, was the lack of enjoyable characters. Bishop’s Lacey is overflowing with them: Dogger, Professor Hewitt, Mrs. Mullet, Dr. Darby, Dieter Schrantz, even very minor characters like the Misses Puddock… these are what make the other books such a delight for me. In this novel, we are introduced to several characters in the school, but for the most party they were faintly sketched and seldom likeable. It didn’t help that the students all called each other by their surnames; this increased the feeling of separation and coldness. No doubt this was deliberate—the atmosphere of the school is one of isolation, not only of the school from society but between the characters—however, this makes for a bit of a dreary read! (Sorry Alan Bradley; I’m still a HUGE fan but this part really did leave me cold.)
Another massive missing piece, for me, was more description of day-to-day boarding school life. I grew up reading Enid Blyton’s boarding school series (and when I saw ‘grew up reading’, I mean ‘devoured and re-devoured’), so, given Bradley’s usually masterful powers of description coupled with a sense of humour, I had high expectations of this. However, Flavia only mentions one or two classes, and one or two meals. Now, even if it does have a culture of isolation, a girls’ boarding school is like a social experiment: I would have expected it to be teeming with interactions, cliques, friendships, hostilities, customs, unwritten rules—kind of like an ant colony, but much louder, and with far more passing of notes and copying each others’ homework. There were tiny, brief sketches of some of this, but SO much more could have been made of this, and was passed right over! Imagine the book Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but with 90% of it set in the entranceway; that’s what this felt like. Look, over there! – the good stuff’s all over there! Why aren’t you taking us inside? As a result, I never really believed in the school the way I believed in Bishop’s Lacey. It was missing the richness and interest.
Another thing that Bradley completely forgot was how huge a factor age is, in a school. What grade you’re in dictates whom you talk to and whom you scurry away from. Inter-grade friendships are uncommon in schools. We no longer know Flavia’s age, because although she’s introduced to us in the first book as being eleven, a year seems to have passed without her having a birthday. So let’s say she’s twelve… the only girls she almost makes friends with seem older than her (although we’re not told their ages either. In fact, we’re never told what age range the school houses). This would be really important! So this killed a great deal of believability for me, too.
The other issue with creating a setting that is cold (literally and figuratively) is that you really have to work on other writing aspects if you want to keep the mood from getting dreary or morose. Here again, I felt like Bradley’s writing didn’t even come close to the gasp-inducing beauty of his previous novels. With almost all of his previous books, I’ve had to frequently stop and re-read sentences because they’re so beautifully crafted. With this book… not so much. It just felt like a weak watercolour version compared to the rich oil paintings that the others were.
If you’re a Flavia fan, obviously you’ll read this anyway (given how much I adore Flavia, I’d read her shopping list), but after finishing it, you might want to re-crack your copy of Speaking From Among the Bones, which to me, is Bradley’s best-written book to date. I look forward to seeing what the next one will bring.
Side note to Alan Bradley: could you write faster, please? A year is a very long time to wait.