CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 18. . . . January 12, 2017
From the opening paragraphs of S.T.A.G.S, Bennett sets a tone of threatening creepiness. With flashbacks and foreshadowing, Bennett weaves together a story of bullying and arrogance that echoes through generations.
Greer MacDonald, 16, is whip smart and a scholarship student in a boarding school in England that is older than the Crusades. Her intelligence doesn’t protect her against the predatory charms of her fellow student, Henry de Warlencourt, who is not only a descendent of a Crusader but is also beautiful, compelling, charismatic and a hunter extraordinaire. When Greer and two other outsider students are invited to Henry’s estate for a “huntin’ shootin’ fishin’” weekend, she imagines it is an initiation into the inner circle of “Medieval” elites When the reality dawns on her – that she and her friends are the hunted – she realizes the predators are everywhere, and her very life is in danger.
Saint Aiden the Great School (S.T.A.G.S) thrives on tradition, rejecting modern life of phones, news, even the internet. Students step back into an old world of loyal servants and dusty libraries, and most students spring from the upper echelons of British society. Greer, the daughter of a documentary filmmaker, speaks with a wry humour, laced with horror filled flashbacks. Over the whole story lies a layer of doom and suspense. Trapped on Henry’s family estate, Greer and her fellow outsiders, Shafeen, the son of an Indian banker, and Chanel, the daughter of a nouveau riche smartphone entrepreneur, become the prey of Henry and his inner circle. Greer is irresistibly drawn to Henry’s beauty and presence, and her yearning makes them all vulnerable. As the three realize they were invited to provide “sport” for the elites, they must take matters into their own hands to survive. With no supervising adults, only lugubrious, loyal (and scary) servants to do the bidding of Henry and his inner circle, Greer and her friends seem to be at their mercy. Eventually, cleverness and ingenuity prevent their destruction, but a last minute twist suggests the deadly, centuries old tradition will continue.
A shocking story of extreme bullying, class privilege and arrogance, S.T.A.G.S. is also a story of resourcefulness and determination. Echoes of Harry Potter boarding school bullying combine with the horror of “The Most Dangerous Game” to send shivers down the necks of adolescent readers. While perhaps few Canadian students can relate to the boarding school world in real life, the culture is embedded in popular fiction to the point that they will readily accept the reality of loneliness and isolation of those who don’t fit in.
S.T.A.G.S. is a fast moving psychological suspense with a strong sense of place, complex characters and a storyline that hurtles to a horrifying revelation. Teen readers will be drawn by the action, the mystery and the desperate struggle for survival.
Wendy Phillips is a teacher librarian in Richmond, B.C. and the author of the Governor General's Literary Award-winning young adult novel, Fishtailing.