Book: “S.T.A.G.S.” by M.A. Bennett
Publishing Info: Penguin Teen, January 2018
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Greer, a scholarship girl at a prestigious private school, St Aidan the Great School (known as STAGS), soon realizes that the school is full of snobs and spoilt rich brats, many of whom come from aristocratic families who have attended the institute throughout the centuries. She’s immediately ignored by her classmates. All the teachers are referred to as Friars (even the female ones), but the real driving force behind the school is a group of prefects known as the Medievals, whose leader, Henry de Warlencourt, Greer finds both strangely intriguing as well as attractive. The Medievals are all good-looking, clever and everyone wants to be among their circle of friends. Greer is therefore surprised when she receives an invitation from Henry to spend a long weekend with him and his friends at his family house in the Lake District, especially when she learns that two other “outsiders” have also been invited: Shafeen and Chanel. As the weekend unfolds, Greer comes to the chilling realization that she and two other “losers” were invited only because they were chosen to become prey in a mad game of manhunt.
Review: I want to extend a thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this novel!
As someone who loves boarding school stories and as someone who loves the evergreen trope of People Hunting People, I OF COURSE was basically stoked to try and get my hands on an advanced copy of “S.T.A.G.S.” by M.A. Bennett. You take themes from “The Most Dangerous Game” and add it to a bunch of rotten rich kids who no doubt deserve a horrific comeuppance, and what do you get?
Am I just holding a serious grudge towards kids at my private high school because of the way they treated me? Maybe. But “S.T.A.G.S.” has a lot going for it beyond petty revenge fantasies for this blogger. To give it a little bit of background, it was originally published in England in August of last year, and it had already secured a potential movie deal by the time that it did. Clearly, my pettiness and predilections are just part of a bigger hype train, and I can tell you now that the hype is pretty well deserved.
Greer is our first person protagonist, a girl from Manchester who loves movies but has no clue what the wealthy elite at her school live like. She lives with her filmmaker father, and has no memory of her mother, who left them both when Greer was two. This innate and early rejection has given her a bit of a complex, and her isolation at her new posh school really just adds to it. I liked Greer as a main character, because her insecurities felt incredibly realistic and relatable. Sometimes her propensity to refer to various movies and actors and actresses got a bit grating, but her identity is so tied to her one stable relationship she has with her father now I was ultimately able to look past it. We see everything through her eyes, and while we are a bit more able to see through the facade that The Medievals, the popular clique who has invited her out for a weekend of “huntin’, shootin’, and fishin'”, her dreams of acceptance and popularity feel very real as they blind her to the underlying danger. While the Medievals are pretty much two dimensional villains (though I will concede that Henry, the ring leader, is pretty fleshed out), the other ‘targets’, Chanel and Shafeen, are fairly well explored. With Chanel trying to fit in in spite of the fact she’s “New Money”, and Shafeen always having to deal with his race in the eyes of the lily white students around him even though he’s as Old Money as they are, the themes of race and class are interwoven in subtler ways than I expected. Though it’s not likely that wealthy teenagers are luring their disenfranchised peers to their deaths vis a vis promise of a fun weekend in the country, the metaphor is there and it is very real.
Themes and characterizations aside, the plot itself was fine tuned and unfolded at the perfect pace. Bennett slowly lays out clues and moments that make the tension go up and up at a snail’s pace, until you are so wound up that you dread for the moment that it comes to a head, lest you snap. The pristine perfection of the manor and the countryside sounded seductive, but there was also an underlying sense of unease and displacement along with it. Though it’s modern times, the modernity is stripped from Henry’s home, and from his social circles. While a cell phone call could solve a lot of problems in this book, the fact that the Medievals deliberately shun and forbid technology acts not only as a way to prevent easy ways out, but also as a symbol for the dangers of the upper classes who long for the old days. After all, it is becoming more and more clear that those who wish we could turn back time have little care how that time turn would affect people who aren’t like them. Or perhaps they do, and that’s the point.
“S.T.A.G.S.” ended on a note that could make way for more books. I am both pretty pumped for it, but I also kind of snorted at where things ended. But I do think that if M.A. Bennett has more to say about this school and the wretched people who inhabit it, I would probably continue down the path until it reached its conclusion. I had a hard time putting it down and I foresee that others will have the same problem. And believe me, it’s going to feel like a good problem to have. We have a new reference point to “The Most Dangerous Game”, and “S.T.A.G.S.” fits right in with those that came before it.
Rating 8: A tense and well built thriller that addresses deeper issues, such as class and race. If this is the first in a series, I am definitely hoping to get my hands on more.
Find “S.T.A.G.S.” at your library using WorldCat!