Cutthroat class is in session
Adriana Mather’s Killing November opens as November Adley, an unassuming 17-year-old, wakes up at the Academy Absconditi. She was dropped off at this peculiar boarding school, which is housed in a medieval castle in an undisclosed European location, by her ex-CIA father with little explanation, other than the fact that she is there for her own safety.
But November feels anything but safe; in fact, one of the calculating and conniving students punches her in the face on her first day. And the administration? They simply encourage November to retaliate in an equally violent fashion. This is all a bit alarming, but soon November learns that she is a member of an ancient family of powerful assassins and tacticians. Without realizing it, November has been training for this school her whole life. But when a student at the academy is murdered, the blame immediately falls on November, and she’ll need to count on her survival instincts to find the truth.
Unlike her highly suspicious classmates, November is an optimist who refutes cynicism—even in the face of life-and-death conflict. What might be most refreshing for readers is the academy’s egalitarian ideals: There are no limitations placed on any student, regardless of gender. And November proves she can handle the most challenging task with aplomb, securing her place in this school of renegades.
Suzanne Young’s Girls With Sharp Sticks is also a tale of female empowerment but with a sci-fi spin. At Innovations Academy, the student body is a homogeneous group of intelligent and beautiful teenage girls who study gardening, etiquette and decorum in a repurposed factory. They are all graded on manners, beauty and compliance. This is the norm for Innovations student Philomena.
She doesn’t know what it’s like to have bodily autonomy or freedom, and she doesn’t question life at the academy until one of her friends goes missing. Suddenly, the academy’s all-male staff doesn’t seem like it has the girls’ best interests at heart. But any girl who doesn’t behave and comply with the staff’s orders gets a dose of impulse control therapy, which affects their memories. Even more disturbingly, a sweet budding romance between Philomena and a local boy is juxtaposed against the unsettling advances of the much older staff. As Philomena and the other girls discover what they’re really being groomed for, they begin to defy orders.
Girls With Sharp Sticks is a thrilling story about a sisterhood smashing the patriarchy. Philomena and her friends resort to subversion in order to protect one another, relying on the same tribal instincts that were encouraged in their education. While this novel reads like a feminist manifesto, it’s also a reflection of modern movements to end sexual harassment.
Both Killing November and Girls With Sharp Sticks are fast-paced and gripping female-centered stories in which the class curriculum centers on survival. But be prepared—they’re both perfectly primed for sequels.