The novel begins like an introduction to urban fantasy with detailed explanations of standard elements. However, it plays on many English boarding school tropes as well, offering an interesting blend of the two. The twist comes in the boarding school being a military college and the main character, Ryan Blackwell, choosing to go there against his father’s wishes. Another way this story differs from other urban fantasy I’ve read comes in how Ryan is running from his known magical abilities. He neither finds them wonderful nor discovers them during the story, though his abilities mature. This makes for a good setup with intriguing aspects to draw the reader in.
The bridging conflict for the story is between a bullied goth student gone bad and Ryan trying to make sure no one gets hurt. The college encourages older students to bully those who don’t fit in until they drop out. This toxic setup doesn’t get much attention, nor did I see appropriate recognition of the reason behind the attacks. A military school built on a powerful magical nexus is unwise even without the systematic abuse.
Nor is this the only issue when Ryan’s perceptions of some students mirror this negativity toward those not meeting the military ideal. The school once again encourages these hostile attitudes by punishing the entire group if one of its members drags them down. There’s also an unfortunate phrasing in the latter half of the book about othering.
The legitimization of bullying, even with a few questioning thoughts, bothered me. Yes, it’s an accurate representation of that mentality, but I would have liked to see some sign of growth in the older students that might bridge to institutional change. Without that aspect, the novel seems to not only accept the status quo but approve of the violence. Still, the series could address this issue in later novels.
Ryan’s life prior to coming to the college is full of being the oddball thanks to seeing and reacting to things invisible to the magically blind. He wants nothing more than to blend in with the other freshmen and make his mark by being part of something rather than standing apart. This characterization offers a perfect starting part for his growth as a person. It’s selfish and self-denial, but at the same time, understandable. His nature conflicts with that desire almost immediately, and yet he hesitates, waiting for circumstances to prove the need to act. Ryan is a good person trying to come to terms with how his abilities allow him to protect this place even when he came here to escape the pressure those abilities caused.
This is only one example of the strong characterization I found in the book. Despite the characters being almost exclusively late teen to early 20s young men, from a mix of backgrounds, almost is the critical word. The characterization given one of the police officers, a groundskeeper, and even a breeze is enough to establish a connection with the reader.
Some of the dialogue is a beautiful example of doublespeak. The book is grounded on the idea of an ordinary military college built on a magical nexus. Magically blind students and faculty remain unaware unless they are observant enough to detect subtle patterns. While Ryan isn’t one of these, he interacts with many who attempt to feel out his awareness without revealing their own. The book would have been quite different without this aspect, and not half as enjoyable.
The tension of Ryan making sometimes critical mistakes, and struggling to reduce their consequences as best he can, offers another strength. While he doesn’t have anyone to go to for magical help that he knows of beyond a breeze, he gains the support and assistance of those without his abilities. He appreciates and draws on the wisdom he can scrounge up, even when he didn’t hear it the first time, instead of letting his hero complex make him charge out on his own.
Ryan is not the perfect hero. He has doubts, stumbles, and even wants to leave it all behind. His character arc is a strong one from rejection to acceptance and a drive to act. He considers all the options and makes a choice, as one of the supporting characters encourages, rather than letting himself be pushed into a corner by the story until he has no options.
The darkness might not have come across in my review, but it’s there. People get hurt and even die. Still, the description draws on Ryan’s reactions, and queasy stomach, rather than the gory details.
Robust characters and important events secured my enjoyment, while problematic aspects were a reflection of the environment. The story concludes solidly with both character growth and major arc resolution, but there are several lingering questions pointing to the series arc, and the introduction of new elements, to draw the reader along. The post-climax chapters create a bridge to the rest of the series and address dangling elements from this story.
P.S. I received this Advanced Reader Copy from the author as a gift to newsletter subscribers.