My interest in the genre of dark academia, and in fact my knowledge of that as a sub-genre of its own in the first place, is totally due to @kiara.in.the.stacks. So, shout out to her! But for real, I am really feeling this dark academia vibe. I have read The Secret History, which was good and I see the hype but also, I had some issues with. I freaking LOVE Ninth House, which I read earlier this year, and Vicious (and Vengeful, though I think that moved past the academia aspect). And some years before getting into bookstagram, I read and was really into Special Topics in Calamity Physics (in fact, it may be time for a reread because I read it before I even started doing review blubs on Goodreads). Anyways, all this to say, send me your recs! One final note on this book before jumping into the review: thanks to @diaryofaclosetreader because I won my copy through a giveaway she hosted.
“Catherine promised its students a golden future, if we gave up a few things in return. […] No world except Catherine. That’s what everyone else gave up. But I didn’t give up anything. I was already a ghost.”
Ines is offered a position, a fully funded spot, as a student at the mysterious and prestigious school Catherine House, located in rural Pennsylvania and known for producing many world leaders, famous artists, etc. You know the kind of school we’re talking about here. But in order to attend, you must be totally cut off from the outside world for the three years of your education. In this isolated setting, Ines’ curiosity gets the better of her as, though she tries to make friends and succeed in school and settle in, she realizes there is an undercurrent of something “off” about the school’s highly exclusive and secretive specialty “major,” the study of new materials, a substance known only as plasma.
I know I started by saying that I’m totally into this sub-genre of dark academia. And I definitely am. There are some common aspects of that that are present in this novel and that I absolutely loved. But I have to be honest and say that, on the whole, something here was missing for me. Let’s start with the good stuff. I thought the writing overall was really solid. There was sort of a choppy feel to the jumps between sections, the dialogue, etc. that fit the vibe really well. It was hard to get settled in/comfortable reading it and I liked that feeling in this context. Also, Thomas did a wonderful job creating the atmosphere. From the very beginning, things were weird. Ines’ roommate had a “pet” snail (like, huh?), the food they eat on campus is super strange (like all really rich, in weird flavor combos, and very dessert-heavy), the House itself had a super old/haunted/eerie feel (there’s a cornerstone of the genre that I love), and some of the teachers and characters acted in ways that really made me, as the reader, feel discomfited, but without really being able to put a finger on why. There’s definitely a suggestion of brainwashing (which fits the imposed isolation situation) right away and that never really goes away. And Thomas builds the suspense and mystery around plasma itself, what it actually is and what it does and what the students in that specialty actually do when studying and experimenting with it, so well. Overall, the aura of dread, of impending…something (even if it’s not as dramatic as “doom”), was a highlight for me.
On the other hand, I struggled with some other aspects of the book. To be honest, the plot itself was really lacking. It seemed to me that, for most of the novel, nothing really happened. And so, the pacing really dragged. Sometimes this is ok, actually, if the character development or other pieces balance it out, but for me that never really happened. Ines herself got a bit of backstory, as did her roommate Baby, and a little bit her friends Yaya and Theo. But for the most part, I didn’t really make many connections with these characters, Ines included. I never really got to a point where I was truly invested in their mystery or survival, which took a bit of the bite out of the “thriller” aspect of the novel. Additionally, I don’t think I ever actually understood the concept behind plasma. It was sort of ephemeral, so that even when I kind of got an idea how students were being taken advantage of in the study of its properties (in very unethical, “would never get pass an IRB in real life,” ways) that should have been chilling/terrifying, I didn’t react nearly as strongly as I would have liked. Since I couldn’t conceptualize the experiments/processes, it didn’t hit me that hard. Maybe this was because Ines herself never really understood, and she was our MC/narrator. But it still terrified her, so theoretically her terror should transfer to the reader, even if the facts/understanding don’t. But then, that goes back to me never getting invested in the characters themselves. And then, the ending. It just seemed…anti-climactic. Again, we’re back to the plot/pacing and nothing really actually happening.
Despite those things that bugged me, I have come up with an alternate interpretation of the story that, as I think about more, I get more and more excited about it, so I’m gonna share it here. I can find no evidence of this being at all accurate online anywhere (not that I’ve looked too hard, so take that with a grain of salt), but… What if this whole story was an elaborate metaphor/dream/hallucination and Ines is someone dealing with a long-term mental health crisis, spending time in a mental health facility, and Catherine House was some kind of incarnation of the facility and how trapped she feels within her own head??? I haven’t thought through the entire thing yet, but I feel like that explanation fits a lot of the details, like why she is so separate from all the other students and why they’re so single-dimensional, the sense of dread and fear of plasma (without clear explanation as to what it really is), and a lot of the quirky little details as things from her life that made an impression (like from the doctor appointments, the food, the clothing/privileges allowances, etc.) and therefore get randomly added into the setting/plot. Plus, it adds a lot of depth to what the ending could potentially be referring to or representing. Anyhoo, that’s just me rambling and speculating (though if you’ve read this, I’d really love to hear your thoughts on my theory!).
This novel had some great gothic vibes, good writing, an ambiance that left me edgy and unsettled (in the good way), and a lot of potential. Unfortunately, I feel like overall, once plot and character development are included, it fell a bit flat for me (though redeemed slightly with my alternate explanation in mind). I will definitely be keeping my eye open for further works from Thomas though, because, like I said, the potential was definitely there with this one and I’m interested to see what she does next.