Miss Mabel’s School for Girls (The Network Series #1) by Katie Cross is a YA fantasy novel with a slew of follow up works finished or on the way.
The good parts of Miss Mabel’s School for Girls are quite good and the bad parts aren’t all that bad. That might not sound like particularly positive praise, but for a book about a teenager from a magic-using family attending a well-regarded school of magic, large boots are waiting to be filled. Whether or not it is justified, HP’s success will hover over any book with a similar setting.
Let me be clear: this is not Harry Potter; this is still a very good book and a fine start to a new series.
One of my (minor) grumblings is that the teen characters feel younger than maybe they are supposed to be. From my experiences teaching 7th-11th graders, these characters feel more 14 than (roughly) 16-18. It is difficult to explain why I feel this way, but overall, the characters’ concerns, speech patterns, and perspectives fit more closely to those of middle schoolers. There is nothing wrong with that. The characters are well-described and fairly realistic considering the setting. While Bianca, the main character, learns quickly and has a larger amount of knowledge going into the school than most students, this is all explained adequately. One possible reason the characters might feel younger than they are is that the setting of this novel is not the present-day Earth. Or, if it is, it is an alternate version of it. I find it likely that people of other times and places might learn and grow in different ways and at different paces. I am curious about what education looks like for these students before they hit this magical finishing school that, as far as I can tell, would represent 10th, 11th and 12th grade in the typical US school system. Are there also schools for boys? Are there mixed-gender schools as well?
The backstory is interesting, and I am intrigued to discover more about it. I would like to know more about the setting of the book: where is Antebellum? Is it connected to the modern concept of Antebellum in the US? Is this a future USA? I do not expect this information to be explicit, and the story is stronger for not dwelling on the setting, but more of the setting should shine through than the backdrop of a school of magic. The atmosphere never quite feels completely authentic, and this might simply be a matter of taste. The aspects of the tale that were not explained in detail are some of my favorite parts of storytelling.
The villain is pretty obvious (though no effort is made to hide who is villainous, only the motives and machinations) and definitely defiantly evil. This can be a pro or a con, and I feel in this case, based on everything surrounding it, this is a pro here. Sometimes you just need a baddie. There are also some “Mean Girls” moments with the popular girls, which is a experience common to the experiences of both real-life teens and heroines in YA books.
Katie Cross has done an excellent job here in writing a book with some strong female characters and only three male characters of any real import. The school is a female-only institution, the instructors are women, and we see some direct interactions with Bianca’s mother and grandmother. This in no way feels forced our inorganic. Men have little place in this story, and none were shoehorned in, which was the right call.
This book doesn’t try to be Harry Potter, and that’s a strength. And most of my quibbles are likely to be given an explanation of some sort as the series continues. Like any good writer, Cross does not give away everything right from the start. Doing that is a rookie mistake, and Cross does not write like a rookie. She’s good, and her editor is, too.