Mystery and horror intertwine in a gothic tale with modern accents.
Cassandra Blackwell's year abroad at Oxford finds the American well outside her element. No matter, though: she's not there to study but to find out the truth about her mother, whose mental illness and suicide have roots in a secret society on campus. McDonald plays with reader expectations, pivoting from one mystery to another. Is the society real or a hoax? Either answer would indicate that half the people in her life are lying, an unsettling prospect. The historical campus trope gets some clever nose-tweaking here; an eerie, winding staircase terminates in a card-swipe lock, and a student poring over his Moleskine notebook has cut a compartment inside to hide a cellphone. Travel far enough into the countryside, though, and that “connectivity” is stripped away. A chase on foot is especially frightening given that nobody can get bars on a phone to call for help. What Cassie learns—about both of her parents and about who is and is not a true friend—leads her to take a bold risk to end the perceived curse hanging over the school. McDonald has done the same thing in a sense, breathing some new life into a well-used genre. If the ending is a bit pat and sudden, it's forgivable given the ride leading up to it. And while it seems unlikely, the potential for a sequel is there, and ripe with possibility.
A story just right for a dark and stormy night. Scary and good fun.