The Academy by C. J. Daly (The Academy Saga, #1)
The Academy is very good at showing people being bad; I've never hated a book's villain so quickly with so few descriptors. It's definitely a slow burn, but worth the payoff. It re-examines and transforms the "kid is selected by special school" genre.
It takes what would normally be just a few introductory chapters in a book about gifted children (a special school sends a representative into a small town to grab one of its young residents to be whisked away to have their life transformed), and turns into into an examination of predatory institutions, coercive power structures, and the helplessness of being stalked and controlled. Some sections were so effective that they made my skin crawl, and I had to take reading breaks early on.
The Academy is somehow really fucking good. Early on I had a lot of mixed feelings about this book. I had been expecting it to be a different book than it was, and so it took me a little longer to see how well it was pulling off its actual story. There's a line in the prologue that made me worried it would be an unexamined well of misogyny, and I was wrong (the misogyny is examined). It's well-crafted, the villains are instantly hate-able, the early ambiguity and uncertainty about what to think about different events is almost definitely on purpose, and it's an amazingly accurate depiction of gaslighting and manipulation (though it's not the only way to show these things, what is there is completely plausible and works well).
It is a pretty long book which has really slow pacing in the start, and it might have benefited from being about 50 pages shorter, cutting out a few of the very detailed depictions of her everyday life early on... but also that level of daily detail about her mind-numbingly miserable existence has a really great pay-off so I think it ends up working. Kate's flip-flopping and contradictory feelings about the love(?) interest was initially frustrating, but it's also what I'd expect and even look for in a romance novel where the main point-of-view character is 17. Part of why this book is so tricky to talk about is that the two pov characters seem to have very different ideas about the genre of the story they're in... and somehow they're both right. Once I realized that, I switched from being conflicted to appreciating how well it was riding this fine line of keeping me just as uncertain as Kate as to what I should think about the love interest (and other events), but never letting me be free from suspicion.
Due to the CWs this is not a book to read to calm down, but a good read. I'm looking forward to the promised sequel.
CW for gaslighting, verbal abuse, parental abuse, physical abuse, manipulation, coercive power structures, and descriptions of gore and physical violence.
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