The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School by Kim Newman

(9.5/10) I can see myself re-reading this book time and again.

Book of the Year 2015 (see all)

Drearcliff Grange is a school bound by rules and traditions, everyone knows their place and when to keep their head down, and if you are a new "bug" you will soon learn them for your own survival. Drearcliff Grange is also a school for unusuals, these are people with extraordinary abilities who are nurtured by a seemingly ageless headmistress. As the title mentions, this is a book about secrets, most of the characters have at least one and keeping secrets at this school may just get you killed.

The book is set around the 1920s and is reminiscent of the best kind of boarding school stories, full of adventure and daring, which most of us have read at some point in our lives. There are five houses that make up the school, all with distinct personalities: Ariel, Desdemona, Goneril, Tamora and Viola. Although Kim Newman has managed a twist on this by giving some of the girls abilities, these may be a blessing or a curse depending on whose view you take. At a school where everyone has an edge, the reality is you can sink or swim, and Amy Thomsett is about to learn this for herself when she arrives at Drearcliff mid-term. Amy is unusual as she has the ability to float. Amy's mother wants her to stop this and believes Drearcliff Grange is the place where this will happen. Amy's mother is of the opinion that being able to float will hinder Amy's ability to get a husband.

Amy is lucky that the girls she shares a cell within Desdemona's third form: Frecks, Lightfingers and Kali decide that Amy is a good fit for their small group. Each girl is well rounded and the four of them compliment each others skills. Frecks has a way with words and is very forthright, Lightfingers is another unusual whose fingers move so quickly that it seems they are invisible and Kali is a Princess, who has learnt English from American magazines, so she talks like a gangster. Kali plans on becoming a Bandit Queen. All four girls have tragic backstories, which seems to almost be a prerequisite for joining the school. Over time, they become their own little gang, keeping an eye out for each other.

Things take a sinister turn when Kali is kidnapped, and Amy realises that she, Frecks and Lightfingers may be the only ones who can rescue Kali. To do this, they must keep their identities hidden, so the girls create The Moth Club. The Moth Club will uncover a dangerous conspiracy at the heart of Drearcliff and unveil other people's secrets. The world of Drearcliff Grange turns darker as the plot moves forward and it is up to Amy and her friends to discover if they have the strength to overcome the horrors and challenges they soon have to face.

For such a large cast of characters, it can sometimes be overwhelming to try and work out whether the character being mentioned is important in the grand scheme of things, although they do make the school more well rounded and can sometimes be quite humorous. Apart from the main cast, the secondary characters are all very well defined from The Murdering Heathens who are made up of Whips (prefects) who rule the school to The Remove who are the social outcasts. Kim Newman has also made the unusual powers far more interesting than the ability to be able to fly.

Drearcliff Grange school is full of rituals, and it does bring up some questions about the nature of boarding schools, such as, does bullying really help build character? The book feels well researched and timeless and crosses themes that are wide ranging from issues of trust to mind control and social experiments that may affect the future. The school teaches the girls how to work in teams, as well as when you need to go it alone and really builds on each characters strengths and weaknesses.

The book has a good tone within a self-contained world that has its own rhythm and rules. Kim Newman has written a fast paced story that is full of action and intrigue that makes the book hard to  put down. The characters are engaging as they continue to get into situations that they may not be able to handle when it is not just student versus student, but also children versus adults. This is not a book about sunshine and rainbows, this is a book that at times is very dark, which also has chilling moments throughout. At the same time, this is a really enjoyable read that has given me a new descriptive word of "Crumpets!" for when you need to exclaim. I can see myself re-reading this book time and again, and with the mention of the Diogenes Club which has appeared in a few other Kim Newman stories, I have hopes of seeing some of these characters again.

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