The men stood too, while we left the room, and as we filed through the door to the drawing room I was the last, so I took my chance and grabbed his sleeve. He turned with an odd expression – pent up, excited and impatient all at once. I opened my mouth to thank him on behalf of the world’s women, realised how dumb that sounded and just couldn’t do it. Instead, I whispered, ‘Was that true? The tiger-mother thing?’
He frowned. ‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘My father runs a bank in Jaipur. You’re as bad as they are.’ And then I had to leave.
So now I knew. He wasn’t their friend after all. He had woven a tale to turn the guns on himself, to make himself the focus and the target, instead of Chanel. And more than that, he was locked in some strange rivalry with Henry de Wallencourt, fought from their two ends of the table.
Greer MacDonald wins a scholarship to prestigious public school St Aidan the Great. It is a world away from comprehensive school. At S.T.A.G.S, the teachers are called Friars, and the modern buildings have been around since the time of Henry VIII. Then there are the antlers. All around the school, there are motifs of antlers, and stories about stags.
Nobody talks to scholarship girl Greer. It gets her down, but there are other ‘misfits’. There’s Shafeen, who dares to be Indian, and Nel, (short for Chanel.) Nel’s father has more money than half the other parents put together, but he made it by inventing a smart phone. Smart phones are out at STAGS. The Internet is for research purposes only. Most forms of technology are considered ‘Savage’. Nobody wants to be ‘Savage’. Everybody wants to be ‘Medieval’.
The Medievals run the school. They hang around in the quad at breaktimes, and bully other students during lessons. At the centre of the group is Henry de Wallencourt. Greer thinks Henry is different from the other Medievals. It’s never Henry who bullies. Besides, he’s so good looking. Greer receives an invite to the de Wallencourt country estate for the autumn break. It’s tradition – every year a group of students are invited to take part in blood sports and social events.
Greer hopes the invite is a sign she’s finally been accepted. Maybe even a chance to prove her worth, and become Medieval. She’s not prepared to listen to fellow scholarship girl Gemma, who begs her not to go…
From the opening lines, we know Greer was involved in manslaughter. MA Bennett is brilliant at keeping the reader in suspense. Greer narrates after the events. She hints at terrible things to come in the narrative. We keep reading, as we know more action is coming.
Bennett is also brilliant at suspense within a scene. My favourite moment was when Greer, Nel and Shafeen creep around Longcross, (Henry’s stately home,) in the middle of the night. When the silhouette of a man in a flat cap falls across the floor, we know who it belongs to, and we know the students might be in danger. We aren’t told this. We know it for ourselves. This increases the chill factor.
I love the trio of Greer, Nel and Shafeen. At the start, the three avoid each other. Each has their own motive. Greer is concerned about being ‘Medieval’. She wants to fit in with the group of popular students who eshew technology and modern day progress. Greer is afraid bonding with Nel and Shafeen might affect her chances. Most people live outside the world of STAGS and Longcross, but every secondary school has popularity groups. Anyone who has been the unpopular kid can relate to Greer. She’s so desperate to be popular, she is blind to the people who might be her friends.
Every setting is etched into my mind. STAGS is created around the emblem of the antlers, and the story of St Aiden, who helped a stag evade capture. There are stained glass windows which depict stags, and antlers etched above doors. STAGS is recognisable as a public school. Like Eton or Harrow, it’s ancient buildings are full of future leaders. A world never accessed by 99% of the population, the school is made more mysterious by its old-fashioned uniform and the strange obsession with stags.
The de Warlencourt estate also shows how upper-class life is unrecognisable to most people. There is a great moment when Greer thinks she is in the Great Hall, and learns that she is in the boot room. The de Warlencourt’s wellies enjoy better accommodation than most working-class families. The relationship between the team of servants to the family reminded me of Rebecca. Greer is politer to the servants than any of the ‘Medievals’, but like the second Mrs de Winter, her manners mark her out as somebody who doesn’t belong at Longcross.
I was ridiculously excited to find the book is set in Cumbria. The county is a wonderful setting for a conflict which begins with notions of old money and class identity. Cumbria is full of old estates. There is also tension between people who have farmed the hills for generations and people who would support rewilding. (Dare you: visit the Lake District and say George Monbiot.) The address of Longcross is given as Cumberland. Not everybody will pick up on this, but this is ‘Medieval’. Cumbria didn’t exist until the 1960s.
The ending leaves the story open to a sequel. If you’re Medieval, write the date in your diaries. If you’re Savage, set a reminder on your iPhone. Meanwhile, I’ll be rereading STAGs. Join me, and let me know what you think? I say it’s epic.
Have you read STAGs? Are you Savage or Medieval? Let me know in the comments below!
Huge thanks to Readers First and Hot Key Books for my copy. This does not affect the honesty of my review.