S.T.A.G.S

S.T.A.G.S was written by M.A. Bennett and first published in 2017. It is a thriller novel with horror elements, focusing on a group of teenagers on a weekend hunting trip. The story does end on a note that implies that this could be the start of a series. However, at the time of writing, no future instalments have been announced.

Greer MacDonald is lucky to have been accepted into the prestigious St Aidan the Great boarding school (known to students as S.T.A.G.S) on a scholarship, however she is painfully aware that she does not fit in. Her roommate barely speaks to her and she is often singled out by the Medievals – the school’s unofficial prefects – who make mean jokes about her northern accent and lack of class.

Greer is more surprised than anyone when she receives an invitation to spend half-term weekend on the sprawling Longcross Estate as a guest of Henry de Warlencourt – leader of the Medievals. Along with the rest of the Medievals and her fellow outcasts, Nel and Shafeer, she has been invited for a weekend of blood sports. On three consecutive afternoons, the group will be hunting, shooting and fishing. Although Greer isn’t certain that she’ll be able to stomach this, she is so flattered by the invitation that she immediately accepts.

However, it’s not long before she starts to notice that something is wrong. The Medievals are all acting strangely, friendly one minute and cruel the next. It’s not long before odd accidents begin to occur and it becomes clear that someone could get seriously hurt. Greer gradually begins to suspect that the rich kids are not only planning to hunt game that weekend. However, how can she hope to prove it when the whole village seem to be in on their plan?

S.T.A.G.S is a truly strange novel and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it. While the concept does show promise, I must admit that I was anticipating more of a teen version of The Most Dangerous Game based on the blurb. Instead, S.T.A.G.S functions as more of a slow-burning horror story. It does its best to build up tension over its first two hundred pages, but never really seems to achieve it.

However, before I get into that, I should probably note that S.T.A.G.S certainly isn’t going to appeal to everyone. While it’s surprisingly not as violent as you might imagine, it does contain scenes of animal abuse (specifically, the hunting and killing of stags, pheasants and trout). It also contains quite a lot of racism, exclusively directed at Shafeer, who is of Indian descent. If you’re sensitive to any of these things, I would probably suggest giving the novel a miss.

Yet, more personal to me, this book doesn’t paint a very pleasant picture of life in the Lake District. This is an area of natural beauty in the north-west of England. It’s also, coincidentally, where I grew up. The novel plays into the typical stereotypes of the north which portray us as simple countryfolk that have not advanced much since the 17th Century. I would just like to assure readers that this is pretty fanciful stuff. The Lake District is a lovely place to visit, and is not entirely populated by the cast of The Wicker Man.

With this aside, the novel does have some grounding in reality. It provides a bit of a heavy-handed social commentary about class divisions in England. While this is taken to extremes in S.T.A.G.S, it’s message is centred on the backwards beliefs of the Upper Class. Through the contrast between the attitudes of Greer and the Medievals, we see just how odd the latters’ views are. They live in a world where “old money” is deemed to be a virtue and those who have it are deeply prejudiced against those who do not. This is something that’s pretty poignant in both English and American politics these days, and so is certainly a very relevant theme to tackle.

However, I really should emphasise that this book does take this idea to its most ludicrous extreme. As large as the rich/poor divide may seem, no one actually would think that the rich actively hunt those who they deem inferior. However, this is nothing compared to what happens in the climax. I’m not going to spoil S.T.A.G.S for you, but I will say that it could have easily ended at the 80% mark. The last 20% of the novel is where things start to get really silly. From the moment that Greer returned to school, the twist became pretty transparent and it will certainly divide readers.

Yet, up until this point, I must admit that I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the novel. While its message was unsubtle and spent a bit too much time needlessly describing the rules of the various bloodsports, there were some scenes that were surprisingly tense. The pheasant shoot in particular was wonderfully executed. I was certain that something was going to go wrong, yet the novel still managed to keep me in suspense until it happened.

Yet, at the same time, it just stretched my sense of disbelief just a tad too far. There are only so many accidents that could happen on a rich person’s estate before people took notice. I don’t believe that a wealthy family could brush off years of “accidents” and child deaths. It would be a scandal. I also felt that the ending of the novel was a bit clumsy. It was a typical horror movie sting as it finished on a note of shocking uncertainty, leaving plenty hanging to be picked up by an unnecessary sequel.

The characters in S.T.A.G.S are all a bit too black-and-white. They fall into two distinct categories. Rich kids from English old money (the bad guys) and people who don’t fit into this group (the good guys). The novel never really does anything to blur the lines between the two groups, as the Medievals are all completely unsympathetic. They are rude to their staff, are very pro-hunting, and make frequent unsubtle references to the importance of “culling animals” and “putting the weaker element in their place”.

While Greer, Nel and Shafeer are all at least likeable, Greer in particular had some issues. As the story is narrated by her in past tense, we learn a little too much, too quickly. Some of her early observations are a bit too on the nose. An eagle-eyed reader will suss out the story’s final twist within the first few chapters. I also found myself irritated by her constant film references. A lot of these are rather obscure and require the reader to have watched the films in question to fully understand what she is talking about.

So, all in all, S.T.A.G.S wasn’t the novel that I was hoping for and it certainly had its share of problems. It was heavy-handed and filled with things that readers might find distasteful. However, if you’re a fan of thrillers, you might find something here to enjoy.

S.T.A.G.S can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. andywinder
    Apr 03, 2018 @ 22:15:09

    Good to see a balanced review of this–I recently got a copy of it but haven’t started yet and was hoping to read a review of it. Overall, would you recommend reading it?

    Reply

    • Kim
      Apr 03, 2018 @ 23:10:38

      If you’re a fan of thrillers, I would recommend giving it a try. It does require you to suspend your disbelief pretty far as the twist is pretty far-fetched, but it does contain some pretty suspenseful scenes.

      Reply

  2. Zuky the BookBum
    Apr 04, 2018 @ 09:30:40

    I love this review! I don’t like YA novels, but sometimes when they cross with thriller/horror I feel inspired to pick them up. I very almost did with this one, but I’m so glad I didn’t now! I don’t think I would have enjoyed it 😛

    Reply

  3. Trackback: Favourite Reviews of the Week – BookBum

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