Robyn Reviews: Ace of Spades

‘Ace of Spades’ is a searing thriller exploring institutional racism in US private schools. It’s a powerful read exploring some hard-hitting topics, but despite the difficult subject matter it’s incredibly fast-paced and readable.

Niveus Private Academy is one of the most elite US schools, attended almost exclusively by the super-rich and churning out students destined for Harvard or Yale. Amongst these students, Devon Richards doesn’t fit in. He’s an exceptionally talented musician – but his father’s in prison, and his mother can barely scrape together enough money to pay the fees even with his hefty scholarship. Not to mention the fact he’s one of only two Black students in his year. The other, Chiamaka, has generational wealth thanks to her Italian father – but she still straightens her hair and puts on a persona every day to try and make herself fit in. She’s fought her way up to Head Girl, but her fight hasn’t made her many friends. When the two find themselves the target of an anonymous texter, Aces, determined to spill their darkest secrets, they must band together if they want to keep their future – and possibly themselves – alive.

Devon is an exceptionally likeable protagonist. He struggles with school – struggles being around people who have too much when his family struggles to even pay the bills – but he loves his family, and his passion for music is incredible. He’s desperate to make it to Juilliard to make his mother’s sacrifices for his education worth it. He’s also gay, but terrified of that coming out – terrified of how his mum might react. Devon skips classes and sometimes deals drugs to try and make sure there’s enough money in the house for the bills to be paid, but he has a good heart and does everything with the best intentions and to try and make his mother proud. He’s the sort of character you want to give a hug to for the majority of the book.

Chiamaka takes longer to warm up to, but she’s a complex character and very well crafted. She wears masks in every moment of her life – a Head Girl mask at school, a Good Nigerian Daughter mask at home with her parents, a Bubbly Fun Girl mask with her best friend Jamie. Beneath the masks, Chiamaka just wants to be good enough – to make it into medical school at Yale and prove that she deserves it. She wants so badly to be liked and respected that she forces herself to be other people because she isn’t convinced that she deserves it as herself. Her battles with self-esteem are hugely relatable, and exacerbated by being the only Black girl at her school and hyper-aware of it. Her growth throughout the book is excellent and it’s amazing seeing her confidence gradually change from a crafted, false confidence to a genuine sense of belief in herself.

The plot is fast-paced and twisty, with a constant sense of tension and unease. It starts as simple high school drama – an anonymous texter spreading gossip – but quickly takes on a more sinister tone. There are side plots dealing with homophobia, incarceration, gangs, and internalised racism. These are all dealt with very well, provoking a great deal of thought without being too heavy for a YA reader. They also fit into the flow of the story, never distracting or coming across as preachy. For a debut novel its an assured and impressive read.

There are a few minor quibbles. There’s a sapphic relationship between two bisexual female characters which comes out of nowhere and has absolutely no on page chemistry – a shame, as every other relationship in the book is well-crafted. The plot is also a bit over-exaggerated which can occasionally take away from the important messages it puts across – but then again, this is fiction, and thriller as a genre is often over-exaggerated. Still, these are tiny blips on an otherwise resoundingly excellent copybook.

Overall, ‘Ace of Spades’ is an excellent YA thriller tackling some important and heavy issues in a powerful yet readable way. Recommended for fans of both YA and adult thrillers and anyone who enjoys TV shows like Gossip Girl.

Published by Usborne
Paperback: 10th June 2021

Robyn Reviews: Don’t Breathe A Word

‘Don’t Breathe A Word’ is part YA mystery in the vein of ‘One of Us Is Lying’ and part dark academia along the lines of ‘Plain Bad Heroines‘. Like the latter, it takes place across two timelines – the present, where Eva has just started at a new, exclusive boarding school, Hardwick Academy, and 1962, where six students enter a bunker built under the threat of the Cold War – but only five emerge alive. It’s an engaging, twisty tale with plenty of surprises. There are elements that require a bit of suspension of disbelief but, taken at face value, this is a solid mystery with a highly satisfying ending.

Eva has always felt like she doesn’t belong. An accidental pregnancy, she was replaced in her mother’s affections as soon as her husband and legitimate child came along – and the final straw has seen her shipped off to boarding school against her will. At Hardwick, she’s on the outside of established social groups and more of an outsider than ever – that is, until she receives an invitation to join a secret society known as the Fives. With the Fives, she’s finally part of something – finally seen as special. But there’s more to the Fives than there first seems, and the more Eva learns, the more uneasy she becomes. Just how many secrets are the Fives ensuring stay buried?

In 1962, Hardwick Academy has constructed a nuclear fallout shelter to counter the escalating threat of the Cold War – and to test it out, six students are invited to volunteer to stay overnight. Connie would never have volunteered – except the exercise is being run by Mr Kraus, her best friend Betty’s latest obsession, and school golden boy Craig Allenby has also volunteered. She can’t pass up the opportunity to spend four days locked in with him. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more to the exercise than they first thought – and as things start to escalate, Connie starts to worry that everything will end in disaster.

Both plotlines are engaging. Reading about the threat of the Cold War and the psychological impact on those growing up in the sixties is fascinating, if horrific, as is the difference in gender roles and the way authority figures are treated. The politics of high school are incredibly familiar, and its hard not to feel for Connie. While it’s never stated on page, Connie also has a clear anxiety disorder, and it’s great to see this not glossed over and have a significant impact on how she acts. In the present day, it’s initially unclear how the timelines will intersect – but as reveals are slowly made, it becomes obvious that there’s a massive secret, and the tension steadily ramps up. At the same time, Eva must deal with the joy of being chosen for the first time in her life alongside the growing fear that the Fives are far darker than she initially thought. The way she grapples with her innate clinginess and fear of being alone is well portrayed, and while its always clear which side she’ll choose Woods does well to make her decision a difficult one.

The characters are delightfully complex. Initially, Eva can come across as hard to like – as a result of her childhood, she has an outward air of irreverence combined with an internal clinginess so strong its off-putting – but as the reader gets to know her, she flourishes into a practical girl with great instincts and a strong moral compass. Her character arc is excellent, and its wonderful to see her start to find happiness despite the circumstances. In contrast, the reader immediately feels sorry for Connie – the anxiety she suffers with is overwhelming, and she’s led along by her friend Betty who seems to mean well but doesn’t always go about things the right way. Connie is sweet and quiet, but also naive – and as events unfold, it becomes apparent that her view on things is far too black and white. Again, she has an excellent character arc, and its impossible not to root for her.

The supporting cast fall a little more into stereotypes, but they play their roles well and have enough dimension to avoid being caricatures. The story as a whole isn’t the most original, with elements reminiscent of other stories in the YA mystery genre, but again it holds its own well enough to prove a worthwhile read. Some parts are wildly implausible – its unclear how the original secret was covered up so well – but this is fiction, and allowances can be made. The story reads on the lighter side, so detailed criticisms of possibility seem unfair.

Overall, this is an enjoyable entry to the YA mystery genre with a highly effective two-timelines structure and two complex and compelling protagonists. The historical elements with the Cold War lend this a dimension which sets it apart enough from its compatriots to be highly worth a read. Recommended for fans of YA mystery and the lighter end of dark academia.

Thanks to Harper360 YA for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 24th June 2021

Robyn Reviews: If We Were Villains

‘If We Were Villains’ is an absolutely spellbinding book. Set in the claustrophobic bubble of a class at drama college, it explores the lines between fact and fiction, right and wrong, and acting and authenticity in a complex and engrossing way. Many have touted it as the natural successor to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ – having read both, I personally believe this is better, although I imagine many will disagree. Where ‘The Secret History’ is a punch in the gut, this is more the first breath of cold air on a winter’s morning: impactful without leaving the reader feeling quite so eviscerated.

Oliver Marks has just been released from prison, having served ten years for a murder he may or may not have committed. He’s greeted by none other than Detective Colborne, the man who put him in prison all those years ago. The detective is retiring, and he wants to know the truth – what really happened at Oliver’s elite conservatoire. Oliver agrees to tell his tale. Thus begins a story of a group of young actors, each with their own role both in life and on the stage, and what happens when those roles are changed.

Oliver might be touted as the protagonist, but he’s always played the supporting role. He’s a sweetheart – the glue binding his group of friends together. Naive and trusting, Oliver is blissfully unaware of most of what’s happening right under his nose – but he also has insights that others wouldn’t. Reading the novel from his perspective showcases a very different angle to most books, and whilst he can make a frustrating protagonist I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The other six characters, of course, fit into the roles of a Shakespearean play. There’s Richard, the protagonist – traditionally masculine, cocky, the sort who always gets the girl. There’s Meredith, the love interest – beautiful, body confident, content to hang off Richard’s arm. There’s James, the antagonist – more delicate and effeminate than Richard, but otherwise shrouded in mystery. There’s Filippa, the supporting role – a tomboy, renowned for her versatility, but utterly forgettable because of it. There’s Alexander, the fool – a loud, flamboyant gay disaster who flirts with everyone and is always the loudest person in the room. Finally, there’s Wren, the supporting female character – slightly less seductive than Meredith but still beautiful in a quiet way.

Except, of course, they’re not just characters – they’re people, and they don’t slip into their roles as neatly as it might first seem. The protagonist isn’t always the hero. The love interest wants to be seen as more than her body. The antagonist isn’t always wrong. The forgettable character is missed when they’re not there. The fool, always laughing, isn’t always happy. The supporting character sometimes comes first. As each becomes less of the character and more the person, relationships twist, leading to unprecedented levels of damage. With the wreckage mounting, each must decide which role they actually want to play – the one they’ve been assigned, or one they craft for themselves.

This is a story about humanity. It’s about the relationships between the characters – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s about what happens when actors get so deep into a character they forget how to be themselves. The plot is dark in places, but also far less important than each character and the way they interact with everyone else. There are constant references to Shakespeare, but familiarity with his work isn’t required to appreciate the intricacy and brilliance of ML Rio’s creation.

Overall, ‘If We Were Villains’ is an exceptional piece of literature – fiercely clever and lingering far beyond the last page. It will always be compared to ‘The Secret History’, but it deserves to be talked about in its own right and on its own merit. Recommended for fans of complex character dynamics, dark academia, and what humanity is capable of when left unchecked.

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: June 13th 2017

Robyn Reviews: The Betrayals

‘The Betrayals’ is gorgeous, atmospheric, character-driven historical fantasy at its finest. It’s slow-paced, but there’s a constant underlying sense of danger that keeps it engaging throughout.

Unlike the majority of readers, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Collins’ adult debut, ‘The Binding’ – it started far too slowly, without the atmosphere to back it up. However, it grew into itself as it went on, and I had high hopes that Collins’ sophomore effort might have fixed the teething issues. These wishes have been fulfilled. The characters are far more engaging and likeable, the atmosphere more effective, the pacing perfectly balanced. There are minor quibbles, but this is a much more enjoyable read.

‘The Betrayals’ is set at an exclusive college, Montverre, dedicated to studying the national game – the grand jeu. This mysterious game is part mathematics, part music, and – it could be claimed – part magic. Léo Martin won the Gold Medal for his grand jeu as a second year – an almost unprecedented achievement – but subsequently left academia for politics. Now, disgraced from the ruling political party, he finds himself exiled back to Montverre. But things have changed in the last ten years, and there are many parts of Léo’s past – parts he hasn’t thought about in years – he doesn’t want coming back to haunt him.

There are three POV characters – Léo, the disgraced politician; Claire, the first female Magister Ludi in history; and the Rat, a mysterious figure who hides in the passageways of Montverre. There are also regular interludes – written in first person, unlike the rest which are in third – from Léo’s diary as a student at Montverre. I’m not always a fan of the first person, but these were some of my favourite parts – Léo now is a politician for a fascist party and a resounding misogynist, whereas Léo then was a bully, but had many more redeeming features. The complexity of those entries turns him into a character you can understand and empathise with.

Claire is an intriguing character. Montverre is an all-male institution, and as the first female Magister Ludi she has a point to prove. She’s strong and clever, but can be abrasive. Her interactions with Léo are intricately written, and I suspect I’ll appreciate them even more on a reread.

The Rat is my one major quibble with the book. She’s not a bad character, but she doesn’t fit well with the rest of the story – I feel like she could be removed and the tale told just as effectively, and possibly more tautly. At its heart, this is Léo and Claire’s story – the other characters are almost superfluous distractions.

This is a character-driven story, and whilst the plot is clever, it’s less important than the intersecting relationships and character dynamics. It’s almost like crossing Collins’ debut with ‘The Secret History’ – a mashup of historical fantasy-lite with dark academia and a generous helping of male egotism. The atmosphere and writing style should appeal to fans of both.

Overall, this is an excellent historical fantasy and a chance to see Collins’ writing and imagination at their best. Those who weren’t so fond of her ‘The Binding’ may want to give her a second chance, and those that loved her debut should find plenty to enjoy here. Recommended.

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 12th November 2020