Published: October 2013
Genre: young adult, fantasy, historical fiction, gothic
At seventeen, Avaline Hall has already buried her mother, survived a horrific factory fire, and escaped from an insane asylum. Now she’s on her way to Blythewood Academy, the elite boarding school in New York’s mist-shrouded Hudson Valley that her mother attended—and was expelled from. Though she’s afraid her high society classmates won’t accept a factory girl in their midst, Ava is desperate to unravel her family’s murky past, discover the identity of the father she’s never known, and perhaps finally understand her mother’s abrupt suicide. She’s also on the hunt for the identity of the mysterious boy who rescued her from the fire. And she suspects the answers she seeks lie at Blythewood.
But nothing could have prepared her for the dark secret of what Blythewood is, and what its students are being trained to do. Haunted by dreams of a winged boy and pursued by visions of a sinister man who breathes smoke, Ava isn’t sure if she’s losing her mind or getting closer to the truth. And the more rigorously Ava digs into the past, the more dangerous her present becomes.
Avaline Hall struggles to make ends meet after her mother’s death by working as a seamstress in a factory. Though she gets along well with the other factory girls, she still needs to keep many things secret — like the man in the Inverness cape who appears on every corner breathing smoke, the black feather she found near her mother’s body, and the bells that toll in her head when danger occurs. They toll again when the factory catches fire and she’s rescued by a winged boy; they toll when she’s sent to an asylum; and they toll once more when she’s sent to Blythewood, the elite boarding school her wealthy grandmother attended and from which her mother was expelled. Blythewood, with all its secrets and history, enchants Ava and her friends. She’s determined to discover the source of her mother’s suicide. As she unravels one secret, many more are unearthed, and Ava learns so much more than she could ever imagine.
It’s so hard to write a succinct summary for this book, because there’s so much to it — so many layers. Ava’s mother’s death, the factory fire, the asylum, and the rescue to her grandmother’s home all take place within the first 50-some pages. Though quick, they’re key to the rest of the story. The Inverness-caped man haunts Ava, the bells constantly toll in her head, and the winged boy appears again once in a while, and during Ava’s stay at Blythewood their meanings become clear. The three are interwoven with her mother’s death, and they reveal more about Blythewood’s history and mission than anything else.
Blythewood, too, is beautiful and enchanting. It’s a boarding school of mysteries, founded on stories so fantastical they feel like fairy tales. These stories, told by different people with different perspectives, enlighten Ava and her friends in their search for the truth. This felt like a blend of Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty and Harry Potter, and yet still so very unique on its own. The classes, the magic, the mysteries, the varied characters, and even the politics and discrimination enrich the story. Blythewood’s purpose is to train young women to protect our world from those of Faerie — a place where faeries of Celtic myth reside — but many are turning against the “old ways” of fighting and seeking peace and understanding. Ava learns of the Faerie hierarchy, the purpose of the Darklings and the shadows, and wonders just how much her mother became entangled in the history.
There’s so much I want to say about this book, but I can’t without giving too much away. There are faeries and magic, cocoa parties and study sessions in the library, dungeons and labs, a forest and a magical land, a giant school and a quaint town, bells and books and letters, poetry and music, fires and archery, politics and friendship. Thank goodness the sequel, Ravencliffe, will be out in December. This series has such a romantic gothic feel to it that one must read it with a hot beverage and roaring fire nearby!