S.T.A.G.S. is one of those novels that drew me in based on its brief cover synopsis: “Nine students. Three blood sports. One deadly weekend.” – I didn’t even need to read the back cover! I was already hooked! Unfortunately, I don’t think this book lived up to its hype and whilst I liked it and really did enjoy it, it had some serious flaws that stopped this from being all it easily could have been.
The general premise of the book is that St Aiden the Great School (a pretentious but studious and ancient school) is full of posh snobs for the most part, run by the high-school elite the “medieval” group at the top of the social chain. Then there are a few so-called “savage” students – those who made it in on scholarships, those who come from ‘new money’ or those who aren’t white. The elite 6 (the medieval students) make a yearly habit of taking a few students to one of their stately homes for a weekend of “huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’” and this is where the weekend can get deadly as the prey shifts from animals to humans.
“My nerves were stretched to breaking point.”
The book touches on some important themes, such as classism, racism, bullying and cults and it really had the potential to be a great book – but I think it attempted to do too much and ended up a bit confused and lost in itself.
I think the biggest drawback for this book (for me) was that it wasn’t as blood-sporty as I thought it was going to be. If you’re going to put “one deadly weekend” on the cover of your book, I expect a much higher body count or at least more serious, life-threatening injuries than what I got in S.T.A.G.S. – it just wasn’t enough for me. I wasn’t exactly expecting Hunger Games or Battle Royale levels of death, as there are only 9 students, but I was definitely left wanting more. And while we’re on the subject of The Hunger Games, I’ve heard this book be described as great for fans of the series, or for those who loved Looking for Alaska. I didn’t like LFA and I loved THG, yet despite this I don’t think that either of these are fair comparisons. The suspense, body count and level of peril is nowhere near THG and, even though I didn’t like LFA, the mystery in S.T.A.G.S.is nothing compared to LFA because it’s far too easy to figure out.
The other drawbacks for this book are avoidable, which is a shame, but perhaps as the author grows this will become less and less of an issue. Each category has something bad about it to taint it. For example, the pacing is mostly really good, but there are certain parts that are completely glossed over that could have benefited from being fleshed out. The world of the school was relatable in a strange way, but there were parts that were a little hard to believe considering this is supposed to be a real-world, present day setting – such as the willing ban on mobile phones by the students themselves just because the popular kids don’t like technology, Facebook and YouTube.
“They were sirens for real today, evil nymphs who brought watery death.”
But the two big ‘in-category’ problems come from the character and writing style categories. Let’s start with the characters. The characters were well fleshed out, interesting and believable – except for our protagonist, Greer. Greer is a complete idiot. She’s easily swayed and disregards blatant proof about the bad-guy just because he’s hot.
But the biggest problem I had with Greer (and the book I guess) is her view on (and the books inclusion of) “Buzzfeed feminism”. Greer identifies as a feminist – and I realise that I could open a whole can of worms here, but I just can’t be bothered to deal with the fallout, so I’ll just say this about the type of feminist Greer is: she identifies as a “Buzzfeed feminist” and legitimately feels guilty about wanting a boy to carry her up a mountain like her friend was being. She thinks that wanting to be carried makes her a ‘bad feminist’. She also says “Some feminist” about herself because she found a boy to be handsome – newsflash – sexual attraction is biological! Simply being attracted to a certain configuration of facial features and body types does not make someone a good or bad person (feminist or otherwise). It’s just biology!
“Blood, I thought suddenly.”
But the worst part is when she feels guilty about not believing a story from her friend Nel. The context is that Nel has woven a fantastical and (at the time she tells it) genuinely unbelievable story to Greer that lacks any evidence or logic, so naturally Greer dismisses it. When Greer later realises Nel was telling the truth she says “I had been an even worse feminist, dismissing her as a hysterical, crazy psycho.” This is the problem I have with Greer’s ‘feminism’ in this book – she berates herself for not automatically believing something simply because the person it came from is female. It’s ridiculous and beyond frustrating to read and to know that this attitude of “listen and believe” simply because it came from a female voice happens in real life too. I was so fed up with this “Buzzfeed feminism” being launched at me I was actively rooting for Greer’s demise.
The other big problem I had was one of the writing style choices made by Bennett – I’m talking of course about the excessive and massively over-used inclusion of film and TV references. It was constant! I get that it was a cutesy thing her and her dad did, but it got frustrating very quickly. Bennett was relying on the readers knowing and understanding every single reference in order for them to understand what was going on. The ones I didn’t know flew straight over my head and really took away from the story. I don’t mind the odd occasional reference to other creative works in my stories, as long as they are used sparingly and effectively – but this was overkill and, unfortunately, came across as lazy writing. Relying on someone else’s creative ideas to paint your own pictures, set your scenes or convey character emotions just didn’t sit well with me for the sheer amount that Bennett used it.
“That look won Ed Norton an Oscar nomination and it’s chilling enough on screen.”
Just to let you know I’m not exaggerating, here are some numbers – in the ARC there are approximately 284 pages that have actual story content on them (so not chapter title pages, the publishing info or covers etc) and a quick skim-and-count that I did after reading the novel exposed 84 references! Some of these were repeated throughout the book and some had multiple references on a single page! It was simply too many. Plus, one of these references was for The Fault in Our Stars, which is fine – except that it contained a MASSIVE spoiler! I mean really, it’s fine if you want to spoil something like Cinderella – we all know how that story goes. But to spoil a relatively new YA book and film of the book was totally unnecessary – especially when the reference wasn’t even needed. Boo – not cool M.A. Bennett!
Honestly, the sheer number of references nearly had me rage-quitting the book!
Now I know that might have sounded like I’ve slated the book (and for those points, rightly so) but I have to admit that despite the problems above, the inclusion of typical ‘horror-movie’ clichés, the twists and turns that read more like a straight line and the absolute Deus Ex Machina that was the Samos7S (7 day battery life?!) – this was an enjoyable read and it was a great debut effort from Bennett. I appreciated the humour that was in it and the character motivation of Shafeen in particular was great.
It seems that there might be a sequel on the way, and I’m looking forward to reading more from this author in the future.
S.T.A.G.S. is an easy read for an introduction to thriller novels –and I do mean an absolute introduction – and despite its flaws was quite an enjoyable story.
“A beautiful day to die.”
[PLEASE NOTE]: All quotations were taken from an Advanced Reader Copy made of uncorrected proof. Quotations may be different in the final published version. I was given a digital copy of the ARC in return for an honest review. I was not paid or sponsored to write this review – all the opinions are honest and my own.