S. T. A. G. S by M. A. Bennett

Monday 30 October 2017

Nine students. Three bloodsports. One deadly weekend.

It is the autumn term and Greer MacDonald is struggling to settle into the sixth form at the exclusive St. Aidan the Great boarding school, known to its privileged pupils as S.T.A.G.S. Just when she despairs of making friends Greer receives a mysterious invitation with three words embossed upon on it: huntin' shootin' fishin'. When Greer learns that the invitation is to spend the half term weekend at the country manor of Henry de Warlencourt, the most popular and wealthy boy at S.T.A.G.S., she is as surprised as she is flattered.

But when Greer joins the other chosen few at the ancient and sprawling Longcross Hall, she realises that Henry's parents are not at home; the only adults present are a cohort of eerily compliant servants. The students are at the mercy of their capricious host, and, over the next three days, as the three bloodsports - hunting, shooting and fishing - become increasingly dark and twisted, Greer comes to the horrifying realisation that those being hunted are not wild game, but the very misfits Henry has brought with him from school...

The first sentence of S.T.A.G.S captures your attention, drawing you in instantly. The rest of the book, however… Leaves a lot to be desired.

After the bombshell that is ‘I think I might be a murderer’ Bennett leaves the reader in what is supposed to be suspense. The idea is to have you hanging off the edge of your seat dying to know just what happened to make the main character open with such a line. The story, however, does not deliver. The majority of S.T.A.G.S is spent describing the painfully posh boarding school and cast of characters who refer to themselves as the Medievals. There’s lots of time spent killing animals and namedropping films, but not a whole lot spent on actually thrilling you. Greer – the grating film buff main character – reminds you, every now and then, that someone died but then quickly goes back to comparing the wallpaper to that in Pride and Prejudice, and you don’t find out just what happened at Longcross Hall until the book is mostly over. By which point it’s too little too late and all your excitement has long since gone.

The meandering plot isn’t helped by the writing, either, which I can only describe as odd. Each chapter starts with a single sentence paragraph, making everything feel a bit unpolished and essay like. It’s almost as if each single line is acting as an introduction to the chapter, outlining what will be discussed in the following pages. And then there are all the film references that will mean nothing to you unless you’ve seen them all but are guaranteed to be annoying either way.

Add to this a cast of characters you can’t really connect too and S.T.A.G.S shapes up to be quite a disappointing read. You never really get to know anyone other than Greer, but even she isn’t fully fleshed out and easy to understand or relate to. All the information is there – what she looks like, the fact that she’s a film fanatic, she lives with her dad – but the emotions are just… not there. The highlights of the book are, without a doubt, Shafeen and Nel, but again – they’re written in a way that makes connecting to them difficult as they’re so flat and clearly stuck on the page. If the characters had jumped out at me more, I think I would have enjoyed this a lot more.

The epilogue, however, does improve things. After the final few chapters where there’s talk of change and wanting to move on only no real action to do so from Greer, the epilogue delivers a delicious twist that leaves the ending open. For your own interpretation and perhaps a sequel, though I don’t think the story warrants one. Just when you think you have everyone figured out a spanner is thrown in the works and you close the book with even more questions. A clever move by Bennett, as it lifts the entire book.

Overall though, I can’t help but feel deceived and let down by S.T.A.G.S. What I expected to be a grisly, bloody thriller really was anything but. Not necessarily a bad read, just not what it promised.

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