My book club at the moment has gone on a bit of a hate-reading spree, and we decided to turn our heads to ‘The Magpie Society’ (YA) and ‘Nevernight’ (apparently NA – new adult) over the last few weeks. Both critically acclaimed, one even on the NY Times Bestseller list – somehow. Once I’ve reviewed the latter, I’ll post it here.
Most people know Zoe Sugg as Zoella, one of YouTube’s first big creators and someone who is no stranger to literary controversy, given all the negative press she received in 2014 for using a ghostwriter for her award-winning book ‘Girl Online’. In this series of YA fiction, she’s teamed up with Amy McCulloch to write a story centred around an elite boarding school called Illumen Hall. Last summer, a student was found dead on the beach with a magpie tattoo on her back, and this year American student Audrey finds herself pulled into the mystery.
So, I’m going to keep this review short because there isn’t a huge amount to comment on. The story itself is flimsy and you finish without any kind of conclusion – but it’s not a neat cliffhanger that particularly makes me want to read the next. It’s like the entirety of Book 1 is about setting the scene, without moving forward the plot at all.
One of my largest issues (though not actually an indication of bad writing) is with the amount of cultural references that Zoe and Amy include, seemingly in order to make the novel relevant to the average teenager – but it immediately cements it in a period which will soon be over. Audrey in particular (written by Zoe) was particularly guilty of this, with numerous phrases like: “lame-ass version of Hogwarts”, “Game of Thrones-style”, “it seems to hum like something out of Black Mirror”, “you don’t even know how to use TikTok”, “there’s a whole Reddit forum dedicated to the investigation”,“only cowards hide behind a disguise, like trolls on Twitter with their little egg icons”,“your mum’s a Rightmove addict” and “this school needs its own Google Maps” to name a few. In my mind, this is the worst thing you can do to age a novel almost as soon as it’s released.
It’s clear throughout that Zoe and Amy’s main aim is to appeal to ‘woke’ young adults, but it reeks of adults attempting to relate. There’s some unnecessary detail and quite extreme virtue signalling when it comes to a diverse character set in terms of race, sexuality and gender.
There are racially diverse secondary characters, but they are presented with a flashing neon arrow above their heads so that you don’t miss them, and for the most part they’re stereotypes. This is something I would expect from Zoe Sugg given her whitewashed YouTube channel and previous books, but Amy McCulloch identifies as a Chinese-White author and her previous novels appear to be racially diverse.
Still, one of the first times this caught my eye was when the protagonist’s love interest was described specifically as: “hot, a white guy with a thick mass of brown hair, warm honey-brown eyes, sharp cheekbones”. After that it becomes clear that someone’s race is important enough to the author’s to include upfront. Some other examples are the ‘feisty black girl’ stereotype: “Clover is just over five foot and very petite, with black skin, bleached curls and a quirky sense of style – but she’s anything but fragile or delicate. She is feisty and bold“, and this weirdly specific intro to two other students: “Bonnie introduces me to a couple of other people in the classroom – Max, a cute black guy with bronze-framed glasses, and Rhonda, a brown girl with long black hair tied in an elaborate braid.”
There’s also a weird scene where Clover is rescued from a group of bullies by our white protagonist and reports back to her friends that: “Yeah. She was in the bathroom, trying to white-saviour me from Araminta’s angry mob”. Comment honestly – do people talk like that? Or was this a weird attempt from the authors to comment on this through the other characters?
Zoe and Amy are sure to pop in the token gay, and make you damn sure she’s visible even though it makes absolutely no difference to the plot and is shoehorned in really – weirdly: “She gives me ‘the look’ – lowering her chin and raising an eyebrow. ‘Classic Ivy. Gets too serious and you run a mile. Teddy’s gorgeous – even this particularly fussy lesbian can see that!’ She laughs.”
As well as that, both main characters Audrey and Ivy end up dating the same guy (a ‘twist’ that was pretty immediately obvious) who is curiously attractive to them both, even considering how he apparently looks: “I want nothing more than to pull the muddy Converse off, rip off his trackies and push him against the nearest tree.”
When they find out they’ve been dating the same guy, they team up to go on the offence and trick him into meeting one of them naked before taking a picture of him and then using it to bribe and blackmail him for the rest of the book. It’s clearly a plot device which they’ve tried to normalize, but – what the fuck?
Having non-gender conforming characters in novels is fantastic to see – and representation in the mainstream media is incredibly important. But it appears that Zoe and Amy wanted so badly to appear woke that their attempts to shoehorn in these characters just absolutely screams of virtue signalling.
Two standout examples include when, despite no-one asking, a student goes into this small diatribe: “It used to say HG for head girl, and HB for head boy – that’s Xander. But our Clover in Year Ten petitioned to make them more gender neutral – so we’re head students now. I still call myself head girl though because that’s how I identify!” Firstly, she doesn’t sound like a real person, and secondly – what does it have to actually do with anything?
And this character who is so controversial for letting her body hair grow out that she’s worthy of an admiring paragraph: “She’ll go for days without shaving her armpits and legs just to prove that women shouldn’t conform to societal expectations. She’s a bit Marmite – you either love her or hate her – but she doesn’t give a damn either way.”
In the average trilogy, or at least series of books, you expect a cliffhanger but also some element of the first book to be wrapped up, ready to re-explore in the second. But this one just ended really abruptly after a narrowly-avoided death and not really much else.
If I could go back in time, I’d skip it.