[Spoiler-free Review] ‘S.T.A.G.S.’ by M.A. Bennett

“This world is disappearing (. . .) privilege is becoming a dirty word. Estates like this are being turned into theme parks. Tradition is becoming irrelevant. The whole world is online.”

Nine students. Three bloodsports. One deadly weekend.

It is the autumn term and Greer MacDonald is struggling to settle into the sixth form at the exclusive St. Aidan the Great boarding school, known to its privileged pupils as S.T.A.G.S. Just when she despairs of making friends Greer receives a mysterious invitation with three words embossed upon on it: huntin’ shootin’ fishin’. When Greer learns that the invitation is to spend the half term weekend at the country manor of Henry de Warlencourt, the most popular and wealthy boy at S.T.A.G.S., she is as surprised as she is flattered.

But when Greer joins the other chosen few at the ancient and sprawling Longcross Hall, she realises that Henry’s parents are not at home; the only adults present are a cohort of eerily compliant servants. The students are at the mercy of their capricious host, and, over the next three days, as the three bloodsports – hunting, shooting and fishing – become increasingly dark and twisted, Greer comes to the horrifying realisation that those being hunted are not wild game, but the very misfits Henry has brought with him from school…

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↠ Title: S.T.A.G.S.

↠ Author: M.A. Bennett

↠ Publisher: Hot Key Books (Penguin Teen in the States)

↠ Rating: 4.5/5 stars

 

I want to start this review off by saying something that might be a bit of a grand statement: if Tartt’s The Secret History and Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys had a lovechild, it might look something like this book. It undoubtedly takes more after The Secret History in terms of narrative, but it has key themes that both TSH and TRB share: wealthy youths; private schools; youths doing ill-advised things and taking advantage of their affluence; a newcomer to a group of glittering, enigmatic people. (I’ve also seen it compared to We Were Liars and Pretty Little Liars in the USA release blurbs)

Now, The Raven Boys and The Secret History both are some of my favourite works. Not only is it because they are incredibly well-written, but also because they share themes which really interest me – namely wealthy youths, because I’m always interested in how authors build up moneyed characters.

Now, S.T.A.G.S.’ equivalent to TSH‘s Hampden College and TRB’s Aglionby Academy is a British institution known as St Aidan the Great (aka S.T.A.G.S.). Our outsider is Greer, a scholarship girl from Manchester whose cameraman father is going around the world to film for a nature documentary. Just like Blue and Richard from TRB and TSH respectively, Greer isn’t from the same salubrious upbringings as her peers.

Greer has a very enjoyable narrative voice – very colloquial and chatty, as befitting a teenager, with copious references to films both mainstream and indie. Her narrative is also retrospective. Therefore she builds up tension by alluding to future events and the consequences her (then) contemporary actions will have.

Greer’s narrative is also the one thing that made S.T.A.G.S. a bit different to TRB & TSH: as Greer is telling the story from first-person, S.T.A.G.S. has a bit more of a girlish tinge in it than TSH and TRB ever did. Greer is a teenage girl, and like most teen girls, she is not unmoved by beautiful boys – in this case, Henry de Warlencourt (yes, like TSH there is a Henry in this book too, and they both play very similar roles). There is romantic daydreaming about Henry, and just what it might be like to be wealthy.

“(…) having mini daydreams about walking in Longcross’s grounds in elegant tweeds, or boating on the lake in a white tea dress.”

To be fair, I have daydreams about walking about country estates in tweeds too, so I can’t really fault Greer for that.

I loved the world-building in this novel – in contemporary books it is much easier, as the basics are already there, but the Longcross estate really did feel majestic, nestled in its vale in the Lake District. The three bloodsports (hunting, shooting and fishing) were also well-detailed and accurately represented, despite the fact that the author claimed to have researched most of the sports and had never participated in any herself.

One thing I found quite interesting that Bennett excluded from the novel is the tradition of ‘blooding’, which would’ve fitted quite nicely into the book in regards to its allegory and metaphors. (Blooding, essentially, occurs when you kill your first animal – it happens in stag and fox hunts and occasionally on pheasant shoots – and you put the animal’s blood on your face. Some people do it to honour the animal as per tradition, others do it as a form of hazing, and some don’t do it at all because they believe drawing attention to the fact you’ve killed another creature is not something to be bragged about.)

One thing I was not expecting was the underlying current of ‘old vs. new’, ‘tradition vs. modernity’. It is acknowledged that the world is being increasingly digitalised and old traditions such as hunting are quickly losing their lustre in modern society. Once-grand estates are now expensive, and some owners can no longer afford to keep them – as a result, these estates are turned into hotels and conference centres and everything in-between. (Fun fact: the Georgian house my mother grew up in as a child, and all its land, is now a business park). Maybe because I’ve just finished watching Downton Abbey, where the theme of ‘old vs. new’ laid close to the surface, but I was impressed at the inclusion of a deeper theme running throughout what I thought was going to be an easy-read YA novel with not much to it. Maybe it’s to be expected: Bennett went to Cambridge, where these kind of dilemmas are probably raised by some of the affluent students (or maybe not, but some people out there certainly lament the loss of how things used to be, and I admit, I’m not entirely invulnerable either.)

In terms of narrative pacing, S.T.A.G.S. was well done. Split into three parts for each of the blood sports, it was well-plotted and well-paced. I found it enjoyable all the way through, but just when you think all the excitement is over, the plot twists once again, and I admit – I did not see the final twist coming, and such surprises are always enjoyable when it sometimes feel like I’ve sniffed out every plot curve and know every trick in the book.

 

In the end, it probably comes down to this: I enjoyed this book and rated it quite highly because it contains a lot of features I personally like to read about. I know other people who have liked it, but not rated it as highly. Some people have commented that it is an enjoyable book but essentially it does not push the boundaries – for that, I wholly agree. In the grand scheme of things, it is much tamer than it could’ve been when faced with all the possibilities that could’ve been explored. I still enjoyed it, though. And I would definitely recommend it to anyone wanting something easy but enjoyable, and who likes The Secret History, The Raven Boys, and on a non-bookish branch, Downton Abbey.

TL;DR: An enjoyable YA thriller that focuses on British heritage, class and the ever-revolving debate of ‘old vs. new’ with a chatty female lead and enjoyable secondary characters. 

 

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