Review: S.T.A.G.S. by M.A. Bennett

12:02 AM

S.T.A.G.S. by M.A. Bennett | Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.5)

As a note, an e-galley of this novel was sent to me via NetGalley by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not effect my opinions in any way. 

S.T.A.G.S. is the type of novel that you need to really be in the mood for. If you're not in the right state of mind for the book, it will certainly not be your cup of tea and border on dull or lifeless. But, it's exactly its dreary tone of danger that captivated me from the get-go. S.T.A.G.S. is smart and indulgent, mysterious and gray, compelling to a quality beyond its age range. It's perfect for fans of Kate Brian's beloved Private series and twisted in just the right way. There's something utterly compelling and fresh to S.T.A.G.S. that I can't quite explain without spoiling the story.

So what do you get when you mix (1) Elite school for mostly over privileged kids (3) Outsiders longing for the chance to no longer be on the outside looking in (6) Of said Elite School's "most admired group of friends" called the Medievals and one weekend outing full of all the bleak and luxurious perks of being part of a clique? A twisted game of hunt or be hunted that will, without a doubt, do your head in with all the suspense that follows.

Straight away, we're introduced to the narrator/main character Greer MacDonald. Greer is a very solid narrator and frankly, the story wouldn't have worked from anyone else's point of view (sans, perhaps, Henry--but we'll get to that later) because she truly speaks to readers. As it happens, Greer's voice is exactly how you'd expect it to be--she is thoughtful, shaken and somewhere between child and adult.

I wasn't sure I'd like how the narration would be set up--in something like a retrospect--but it truly worked. I liked that we saw Greer's life as it was before the event; her quiet observation of her fellow classmates, the ones who isolate, ignore or mock her, the admiration she had at first for the clique known as the Medievals and in particular the ringleader, Henry de Warlencourt.

There's this sort of innocence to her at first. I am reluctant to use that exact term but there's nothing else quite sufficient to refer to the picture of Before that she paints in her narration. Because the story is told in comparison to life Before and After one fateful weekend.

Other elements included in the story are: cruelty, privilege, friendship and what it's like to grow up in a word of insiders as an outsider.

At its core, S.T.A.G.S. could be seen as something not terribly unique. Upon first glance, I'll admit, I thought it'd be just another private school mystery that had little substance. But Bennett surprised me with her descriptive writing, richly drawn history and spine-tingling suspense that built up slowly and in what felt like real time.

You see, she has this way of writing her characters that feels incredibly real. Like you already know them. Greer could be your very best-friend, a girl from your class, your sister. Chanel could be much of the same. And of course, so can Shafeen. These three serve as the moral center of the novel and feel very much like the sort of kids I'd have befriended during my teenage years--I loved that quality. You truly wanted them to get out of their ordeal alive.

As for the Medievals, they too felt like kids you knew in high school... but with a dreadfully dark and disturbing twist. That being said, I'm not sure why many reviewers are titling this story as something similar to the film Mean Girls. Plot-wise, the story is completely different and far more creepy due to its subject matter and the so-called game at hand. Come to think of it, there's nothing quite like it that I had ever read before and that's what made it so appealing to me, plot-holes and all. The only book I can think to compare it to, in its genre, is the above mentioned Private (and Privilege) series by Kate Brian.

In fact, Henry feels like the perfectly suitable counterpart to Private/Privilege's deliciously charming and utterly evil Ariana Osgood. I remember thinking, for the most part, how similar they were in tone and personality. Admittedly, Ariana was the much more sympathetic villain but they are both deeply compelling because of their gruesome games.

But back to S.T.A.G.S.

I'm not going to tackle the plot-holes that made me knock my rating down half a star because they're more personal preference ticks than actual faults of Bennett's delectable tale. S.T.A.G.S. was more than any flaws it had and that's what makes it so brilliant and atmospheric; it isn't perfect but it sure is easy to get wrapped into.

Essentially, the story's biggest focus is the Medievals and their clique's ways. You know the type... until you don't. Because these kids aren't exactly the mean girls and boys you've known your entire life. What I found to be most intriguing about them was not their personalities or lack of quirks, it was the way they owned the school and its students with barely any whisper. They had this eerie control over everyone and everything, to the point that their word was basically law.

And there's this whole conspiracy on just how deeply their word runs in the entire area, even beyond the school. Including some interesting trends they set--like the distaste for technology and social media, not something you see everyday in this particular age group. It begs the question... who else is under their thumbs?

They are true hunters; stylish in their arrogance, intelligent and conniving. They lure you into a sort of comfort before going in for the kill. Quite literally. The worst of them all, of course, is Henry. He is clearly the mastermind behind everything and calls the shots in his own time. What's worse is he is the type of character that chills you to your bone as you wonder if you should distrust him or if it's all in your head.

That's the biggest theme of the novel: you just don't know who to trust and if you, and the characters, are overreacting.

Every year, at half-term, (?) the Medievals host a weekend away at the estate of Henry's family. The place is old and luxurious, setting further the tone and atmosphere that Bennett had set up at the just-as-old-and-creepy school, and the purpose of the getaway is supposedly to scope out new prospects for their little clique.

During this time, the group of six known as the Medievals would get to know a group of three and partake in "huntin' shootin' fishin'". This, of course, makes one outsider suspicious from the get-go and the other two are seduced into this idea that, one day, they'd be a part of the group for real. Any teenager who has felt loneliness or like they don't truly belong in school would have felt the same, and that vulnerability serves as something obtainable for the audience.

It also serves as something the Medievals rely on when it comes to their own games.

Soon, the weekend turns from fun to a nightmare and the three outsiders have to find a way to beat the others at their own game. One thing is for certain: none of them are safe and the hunt is on.

With a chilling pace and fascinating twists and turns, S.T.A.G.S. proves itself to be one of the best YA books of the year and one of the funnest debuts I've read in a very long time. My heart was pounding at a constant pace throughout the many thrilling moments and my mind is still reeling from that final twist. And the way that it ended was truly and completely satisfying! I loved S.T.A.G.S. and cannot wait to hear more from Bennett in the future.

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