Miss Ellicott’s School—where Surplus Females are Taught Spells, Potions, Wards, Summonings, and Deportment—is located in Lightning Pass, a walled city protected by powerful sorceresses and ruled by a king. Neither the sorceresses nor the king are actually in the business of running things, though—the people who are really in charge are the patriarchs. This is a basic, unquestioned aspect of life in Lightning Pass—as is the fact that residents rarely, if ever, leave the confines of the city—and not something that the girls of Miss Ellicott’s have ever really considered or worried about...until all of the sorceresses, including Miss Ellicott, disappear.
Chantel Goldenrod, like the rest of the students at Miss Ellicott’s School for Magical Maidens, was left on the doorstep of the school as a baby. Since the very beginning, she has excelled at her magical studies—she summoned her familiar, the snake Japheth, when she was only six!—although she has never been particularly good at Deportment. Now thirteen, she’s one of the oldest students at Miss Ellicott’s—and so naturally, she’s the person that the other girls turn to when they find themselves on their own.
This is a book about recognizing the difference between staying safe and being a prisoner. About being afraid of the unknown and living life in a defensive state versus working to understand the challenges—and sometimes the dangers—that you face. It’s about the difference between reacting and acting:
And all the spells we learn, they’re all about things we’re afraid of, aren’t they? We don’t learn to fly. We learn to hide.
But Blackwood acknowledges the complexity there, and shows that it can be scary to leave the seeming safety of a cage:
She took an unsteady step, dizzy and uncertain. It was hard to stand upright with no walls closing you in, hard to walk with no doors or gates ahead of you.
It’s about different kinds of imprisonment, and touches on how treating young women as if they’re sugar and spice and perfect and fragile instead of, you know, people is a problem:
“It seems to me,” said Miss Flivvers, who had been in a sour mood, “that once you’re up on a pedestal, you can’t take a step in any direction without falling.”
(For more on THAT topic, read Sady Doyle’s most excellent Trainwreck.)
It touches on how women are complicit in supporting inequality, willing to push other women down in order to stay afloat—or even to get themselves ahead. It touches on the importance of perspective and point of view. It touches on how reading can lose its magic when a reader only has access to books deemed “acceptable” by the authorities. It touches on the importance of expressing emotion:
And it shows how Deportment, Chantel’s nemesis, can also be a source of strength.
There is so much more in there. So much more. About education as a right, not a privilege; about the unfairness of being expected to show gratitude to someone for exhibiting what should be regarded as common decency; about the choices we make when faced with disaster.
It’s a solid story about friendship, about asking questions, about pushing back, about working to help other people, about how the Right Thing is sometimes the Hard Thing. It’s a fantasy—AND YES, THERE’S A DRAGON!—that works on story and character and world-building and emotional levels, with wonderful chapter headings like "Chapter Five: In Which Chantel Considers Guts as Garters," but it also, again and again and again, provides commentary on The Real World. Reading it is both a comfort and a call to arms—it’s reassuring and inspiring at the same time. It’s a book that reminds us that heroes exist, but also that we can be those heroes.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom and The Backlist, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.