'Girls With Sharp Sticks' by Suzanne Young (2019), is about girls at the 'Innovations'Academy' who are being taught to be 'better girls', obedient, respectful, compliant and pretty. It's the story of one of the girls, Mena, waking up to the fact that the Academy is not what it claims to be and claiming her rage at what is being done to her and the other girls at the school.
The plot and pace of this book make is a compelling, I-have-to-know-what-happens-next and Oh-no-they're-not-going-to-do-that-are-they? thriller.
The first person narrative lets us share Mena's journey, investing the reader in Mena's struggle and binding us to her emotionally. It also lets the reader see, and often rage at, the gap between what Mena sees as going on and what we think is happening. Initially, it seems that Mena is just too nice, too passive, too inexperienced and too trusting to work out what's going on. Then, slowly we realise that Mena isn't naturally like that, the Academy is making her like that.
I'm not going to disclose what's really happening at the Academy as part of the fun of the book is guessing the nature of the malfeasance, being sure you've got it right and then having to guess again, so I'm going to focus on how reading the book made me feel.
The dominant emotion I felt throughout this book was rage. Rage at the men running the Innovations Academy. Rage at the men funding them. Rage at the soul-crushing cruelty of what is being done to these girls.
One of the things that fueled my rage is how believable the Academy is. The lessons being given on how to be 'better girls' are not so far from what would have been taught in a Finishing School sixty years ago. Although the teachers at the Academy are misogyny incarnate, weak, angry men who hide their hate for women behind a mask of patriarchal concern expressed through punishment, they are not cartoon monsters, they are the kind of men we've all met. Giving men like this with absolute authority over girls like Mena is deeply wrong. This is the core truth that the rest of what is happening at the Academy simply amplifies.
My rage as a reader was like a bow wave, always a little ahead of the rage that slowly builds in Mena, moving from disquiet to outrage. I loved Mena's rage. By the time I was a quarter of the way through the book when I still wasn't sure what was going on, I was already looking forward to the revenge I assumed Mena and the girls would eventually take on these men.
I loved the idea of that a poem, 'Girls With Sharp Sticks', was the wake-up call that unlocked Mena's ideas and emotions, that let her see who she was and what she wanted.
The plot went into a different and better direction than I expected. When Mena awoke, her focus wasn't on revenge. Her focus wasn't on men at all. Her focus was on regaining her own agency and on freeing and protecting the other girls.
What the Academy was really about was also more complicated and more interesting than I'd initially assumed and I admire the skill with which I was led and misled to the journey's conclusion.
If you're looking for a light, exciting, speculative fiction read, 'Girls With Sharp Sticks' will deliver it to you but along the way, my guess is that you'll also find that you're reading something that challenges the humanity of patriarchal misogyny and makes you question what a 'better girl' would really be like.
The book works very well as a standalone, but it also made me hungry for more, so I'm glad to see that the sequel 'Girls With Razor Hearts', is already available.
Caitlin Davies does a great job at narrating 'Girls With Sharp Sticks'. I recommend listening to the audiobook if you can. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.