The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School
Author: Kim Newman
Publisher: Titan Books
Date of Publication: October, 2015
Another year, another book about a magical school appears on our shelves. After the juggernaut that was the Harry Potter series, you could hardly blame publishers from searching for the next academically-minded fantasy adventure series. So four years after the publication of Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, British horror and fantasy writer (as well as film critic for Empire magazine), Kim Newman let us in on The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School.
Yes, once again the school at the centre of the story is a haven for young people – in this case, young ladies – with unusual abilities. Not all of the girls in question have super powers per se, but they’re all gifted in their own way. Our main concern in Newman’s book is with The Moth Club: a group of friends who have banded together when one of their own is abducted. There is Amy Thomsett, the new kid (bug) on the block, who has an affinity with moths and can fly like one, too; Serafine Walmergrave (Frecks), the first friend Amy makes at her new school; Emma Naisbitt (Light Fingers), an Unusual, like Amy, with the ability to move at a rapid pace, making activities like pickpocketing, needlework, and copying homework a lot more manageable; and Kali Chattopadhyay, the daughter of a criminal mastermind who wants nothing more than to kill her father and take over the family business.
There is the kindly headmistress, Dr Swan; the division of the school into Houses (our heroines are based in Desdemona); the inevitable school bullies; and the untrustworthy teacher (here the school reverend). These appear like items on a checklist, and as I made my way through the first few chapters I found Drearcliff to be quite derivative. But I should have known better.
Kim Newman is somewhat of a cult figure among horror and fantasy enthusiasts. You expect him to head off in one direction, as most writers would, when he pulls a number of surprises on the reader. He is the creator of the Anno Dracula series of novels, which imagines a reality where Count Dracula didn’t die at the hands of Van Helsing and his assistants, but instead survived and married Queen Victoria. Yes, you read that right. The vampire lord becomes consort to Her Majesty. Shenanigans ensue, as you’d expect, with the series moving the action to the present day with Johnny Alucard.
After what was, for me, a shaky start to this book, Newman introduces the book’s Big Bad, a new girl/bug called Rayne, who very quickly has the entire school under her wing. Rayne divided the pupils into Black Skirts and Grey Skirts and sets one against the other. Indeed, at one point, Amy finds herself on her own as her friends turn to the “Black” side. One extraordinary chapter, written so hypnotically, has Rayne skipping and chanting a nonsense verse, seemingly unaware of the events around her. Pretty soon, she has much of the school skipping and chanting alongside her. I nearly picked up a skipping rope myself, the chapter was so good. What follows is a cross between Enid Blyton on LSD, Nancy Drew on cocaine, and a superhero free-for-all. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I’d finished the story I was very impressed. Newman’s world-building is wonderful. There is a lot going on outside the school. It’s a parallel universe almost. There was a First World War, but not as we knew it. Likewise, magic is a thing. Think Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, then add a motley of unruly schoolgirls and you get the picture.
If you’re looking for something to take your mind off the January blues, I’d recommend giving Kim Newman a run for your money. Read this one, and then get stuck in his Anno Dracula series. You won’t be disappointed.
The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School
Pacing: The story twists and turns a lot. In fact, there’s enough going on for a trilogy of books here. The abduction storyline, which kickstarts proceedings, is dealt with within a couple of chapters. Then there is the long wait for the next thing to happen. But when it does, as I mentioned above, it’s a rollicking read until the end. (There’s an intriguing “flashforward” as an epilogue. That alone is worth the price of admission.)
Characters: They are a cheeky lot, these Drearcliff Grange schoolgirls: a mix of St. Trinians hi-jinks with wartime evacuee pathos. They stuck with me well after I put the book down. While I could have done with more adult guidance in the story (the headmistress bookends the story), I can see why Newman stuck with his kids.
Setting: I wouldn’t mind finding out more about this world, this almost Earth. Very much in the steampunk alternate history vein, this kind of setting is always a favorite of mine.
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