Entering another world by stepping through a portal is a common enough trope in fantasy literature, with origins as old as faerie itself. So too is the boarding school for precocious preternatural students, from Hogwarts and Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children to the Xavier School For Gifted Youngsters and many, many more. The reader is in familiar territory accompanying Nancy Whitman on her first day to Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children. Nancy, and all her classmates, have been sent to reacclimatize to the so-called ‘real’ world after returning from a variety of distinct, unique, impossible lands. Nancy traveled to the Halls of the Dead. Nancy and nearly all of her classmates want nothing more than to get back to their otherworlds, a world they now call home.
It’s a slim book, ~169 pages, and I might be forgiven for wondering if my local library had mis-shelved it in general fiction when it belonged in Young Adult. Until page 40, when Nancy’s new roommate inquires if she likes a handsome classmate by abruptly asking, “Do you want to fuck him?” The roommate also asks her opinions on masturbation. It’s not the topics themselves that preclude Y.A., but the tone and ease with which they are mentioned. They are not the focus; there is no exploration of themes. It’s startlingly matter-of-fact.
A murder mystery ensues. One after another, students are being murdered and dismembered— one for her eyes, one for her hands. As the new girl lately returned from the Halls of the Dead, Nancy is the likely suspect. The plot is slightly predictable and the point-of-view unexpectedly variable, but that doesn’t matter. Suspension-of-disbelief transcends such novelcraft imperfections. As with most portal fantasies and precocious schools, the quest for belonging is what unites character and reader.
A stellar, engrossing book appreciated all the more by this busy reader for its slender length. A winner of numerous awards and honors including an ALA Alex Awards Winner (Adult Books for Young Adults); Goodreads Choice Awards; Library Journal Best Books of the Year; and both a Nebula Awards Nominee and a Hugo Award Nominee.
A series is planned. Book 2, Down Among The Sticks And Bones, is expected this June.
Read an excerpt, courtesy of publisher Macmillan.