Age range: Elementary/Middle school and up
Our main characters are Sophie and Agatha, two teenage girls who are kidnapped from their village of Gavaldon and are brought to the School(s) for Good and Evil. Once there, it’s revealed that all of the heros and villians of their most beloved fantasy tales, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, etc, once attended these schools.
Beautiful Sophie, who had always dreamed of going to the School for Good, spends all her time in Gavaldon doing good deeds, living a healthy lifestyle, and most importantly, taking pity on the lonely girl, Agatha, who lives in the graveyard, and taking the time to befriend her. Ugly, awful Agatha never believed in the kidnapping stories that came about every year, when two young people from Gavaldon would disappear overnight and, mysteriously, appear in storybooks years later, yet everyone expects her to get taken for the School of Evil. One night, both girls are taken, and, surprisingly (or not), Agatha is taken for the School for Good, and Sophie for Evil. Once there, it is Sophie’s mission to get into what she believes is her rightful place in the School for Good, while all Agatha wants is to get both of them back home. Soon enough, they are both swept into a fairy tale of their own.
First of all, this review is not going to be spoiler free, so, if you want to read without knowing what happens, go read. So…go off…I’ll be here when you come back….
The Cover: Okay, I know there’s the whole “don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” but listen. I love judging books by their cover. Book covers are art, and they are an essential part of the book reading experience, especially physical books that you can touch, flip through the pages, inspect every detail of. Book covers are meant to be judged, simply because they’re your first impression of the book, they’re what are supposed to get you to pick it up from the shelf. I liked the cover of this book. It was very pretty, nice to look at, and I felt it was a great introduction to the atmosphere of the book. So, A+ book cover.
The Story: Going into this book, I felt that it had a lot of promise. It had an intriguing premise, and I was interested to see what the author was going to do with it. My expectations weren’t exactly high, but I was ready for some nice, childrens/young adult fantasy, maybe something a little gothic, judging from the cover. Whenever I dive into a book, especially one that’s part of a genre other than realistic fiction, I always think of what my creative writing professor from my senior year of college told us to ask ourselves when reading and writing fantasy/sci fi/etc: “Do we believe this universe? Do we buy what the author’s telling us? Is this convincing?” My answer for this book? Yes, I do think Chainani did a good job of immersing me into his colorful universe, and it was obvious he knew he fairy tales.
Where he fell short was selling me his characters. While it’s not an author’s job to make us like their characters, necessarily, it is their job to make the reader care about them (another piece of wisdom from my professor), and to be honest…I didn’t really care. One major, if not entirely intentional, theme of this book was that beauty = good, and ugly = evil, and I felt that’s where the basis for most of the characters in this book came from, and where the “twist” with Sophie and Agatha was. Sophie was beautiful but evil, and Agatha was ugly but good. Which is a good twist, in my opinion. A very solid one.
Only thing is, Chainani fell short on this twist, which I think became one of the central, misleading messages of the book. As Sophie became eviler, she got physically ugly, grew warts and lost her hair, and as Agatha began to realize that she did in fact have inner goodness, she became physically beautiful, washed her face and brushed her hair and wore pretty dresses. Now, I could have lived with this theme, had it been developed more, but it felt so shallow and superficial. Why couldn’t Agatha remain physically ugly, but good? Her shabbiness was part of her character, I felt, and part of why I did like her, because I felt it made her, her. When she became beautiful, she became less brash, and timid around boys. As for Sophie, I desperately wanted to see her take full advantage of her beauty and instead of using it to try and prove her goodness, use it to be the most beautiful, wicked witch. Who doesn’t love to hate a beautiful evil character? (or love to love one?). Instead, I felt that one of the messages of the book, while perhaps not intentional on the author’s part, became good=beauty=power, while evil=ugliness=weakness.
The intentional message that I felt Chainani was trying to get at was that there is no true clear cut difference between good and evil and that everyone has a bit of each in them, but in getting there, he got a bit wordy, messy, and lost. A lot of this book, I felt, was the characters reiterating over and over the “problem” of their being placed in the wrong schools, and Agatha’s constant “we need to go home!” After the 30th time it was mentioned, I’m pretty sure I got the point. I’d hoped it would move on to some other central plot, but alas, the debate of schools lead all the way to the “final battle” at the end of the book, to the very last page, by which time I was quite ready to be finished. By the second half of the book, it was clear that this story did not have solid focus.
The central love interest was Tedros, son of King Author and Guinevere. This guy was the most wishy washy of all. His character is introduced as the stereotypical swash buckling prince, cocky and stoic and indescribably handsome, loved by all the girls. One of the rules for being “Good” was that you defend, especially when it came to prince defending their princesses, and this, I felt, was the basis of Tedros’ character. However, in the several tiny instances of Tedros’ point of view in the book, he expressed longing to be “understood” and seen for who he “really was,” not just for his skills and for his looks. The only thing was, Chainani didn’t give us anything else about him. I wanted to understand him, to see who he really was. I hoped for his character to be deeper, but he remained stereotypical and shallow in his relationships with Sophie and Agatha, both of whom he fell in love with when they were in their beautiful states, despite his longing for a girl “he could trust.”
In the end, after a battle in which the School for Good became ugly for their “evil actions” and the School for Evil became pretty and attractive for showing goodness, I simply felt that the book had missed its mark. While this is only the first book in a three part series, I expected the schools to perhaps converge instead of simply flip flop. Sophie and Agatha’s relationship never deepened into more than Sophie constantly tricking Agatha and Agatha always crawling back to her in her loyalty for their friendship. While Sophie constantly proved herself truly Evil and uncaring of Agatha, in what was supposed to be another twist at the end, she sacrificed her life for Agatha and told her she loved her, and HOORAY, friendship won. After nearly 500 pages, I felt like this was out of character for Sophie and a bit of a cop out as a twist. Why was she suddenly good, and truly Agatha’s friend, when she had done nothing to prove it throughout the entire novel?
I simply wanted more depth from this book, and a clear focus. Why, why, why, I kept asking of the characters, and instead of answering me, they talked, battled, and asked the same questions of themselves, over and over and over. For the last quarter of the book, I found myself skimming through needless action and repeated dialogue, simply searching for the last page.
The writing itself was solid. Chainani wrote descriptively, and I found myself in a vivid, colorful world. However at times it was a bit confusing, and I found myself having to reread dialogue to figure out who was saying what, or to clarify what was happening in the action.
Overall, while set in a deep, vivid universe, I found the plot and characters shallow and misleading. This book had so much potential, but in the end fell very short. I give this book 2 stars out of 5. Will I be picking up the second book in this series? I don’t think so. There was no mystery, or interest, to carry me on.