Why did I read Blythewood? Because my name is Blythe, of course. And judging from the fellow readers who added it on Goodreads, that makes…two of us. Perhaps Carol Goodman should have called it Ashleywood.
Blythewood is kind of all over the place at first. No sooner has it started than the heroine, Ava, is in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, after which she is in an insane asylum until she is rescued by her rich grandmother. And then, she’s off to Blythewood! Fortunately, once Ava arrives at Blythewood the frenetic pace slows down and the reader can recover from the whiplash.
To back up a bit, when we meet Ava, she’s a poor seamstress working to support herself after the death of her mother, who made fancy hats. Her mother went downhill fast after seeing a sinister man in an inverness cape; she self-medicated with laudanum and eventually died of an overdose. Ava sees the same sinister, caped man the day of the fire, when she’s miraculously saved by a mysterious, winged man. Unfortunately, Ava blacks out on the sidewalk after the disaster and comes to in an insane asylum, where no one believes her story. But fortunately, before Ava or the reader can stress out too much about that, Ava is rescued by her grandmother’s servant and whisked off to her luxurious New York home. She’s told to prepare for her Blythewood interview, and Ava is both excited and nervous. Her mother was a Blythewood alumna, but has been very secretive about the school, and Ava doesn’t know what to expect.
Ava passes her interview with flying colors. it turns out her mother gave her a strong grounding in mythology and collective nouns…and that Ava has magic powers. You can’t go to Blythewood without those. After she arrives, Ava and her fellow student learn that Blythewood exists to train girls to combat the evil fae, which basically encompasses all sorts of paranormal creatures. The girls are told that all of these creatures are bad, and that the Blythewood girls and their male counterparts (who go to school in Scotland somewhere) are there to keep the faerie world at bay and protect humanity. All of Ava’s new friends have some type of skill that will help them with their new endeavor.
This all sounds fabulous, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Before Ava even arrives at Blythewood, she hears whispers of conflict between those who cling to the “old ways” and those who want to see changes. As Ava becomes more deeply involved in the school, she realizes that the “old ways” involve an obsession with breeding (eugenics, really) and a fear of every fae creature that may not be fair. She learns that the winged man who saved her was a darkling – who is supposed to be evil, but clearly wasn’t. Ava has other mysteries to solve. She knows that her mother was a Blythewood student who wandered into the woods and came back, but was expelled from the school. She’d like to get to the bottom of that mystery, and figure out what really happened. She also sees the man in the inverness cape again, and knows he is up to no good. Who is he, and why does he seem to follow her?
This is a book that attempts a lot – and succeeds some of the time. I found it hard to grade. Every so often I read a book that makes me want to split hairs and call it a B– or a C++. This was one of those. On the one hand, this is a book intended for the YA market. I couldn’t shake the feeling that had I read it when I was eleven or twelve, I would have been all over it. Where were these types of books in 1982? Practically non-existent, that’s where.
On the other hand, I’m not twelve any more, and as an adult I found the flaws more apparent. The pacing is uneven. When it’s exciting, it’s very exciting. But the in between stuff was sometimes boring and hard to get through. Time flows unevenly as well; sometimes it’s rapid fire (like in the beginning of the book), and sometimes it just drags.
The characters, though sometimes imaginative, are not as compelling as they could be. Ava in particular just seems to be everygirl – not in a relatable way, but in a generic way. Her friends at Blythewood are more types than people. Country girl, rich girl, snobby girl, mean girl, twin girls. They don’t exactly light the world on fire.
On the other hand, I did like the world building – quite a lot. There are girls who follow the faeries and get lost, darklings who appear to live sort of like humans (but in trees!), and lampsprites who are gruesomely captured and pinned like butterflies, though they look like tiny people. The old ways-new ways debate is interesting, and you can see that those who embrace the old ways are mostly scared rather than mostly evil. There are some inconsistencies that need to be hashed out, and several things that aren’t really explained, but at least some of that will likely be resolved in later books.
I would marginally recommend this to younger readers who loved Harry Potter and would like a little magic (though Blythewood is not really of that caliber). As for older readers, it’s tough to say. It’s flawed, but I have to confess that I am at least a little curious to know where the story (which has a cliffhanger ending, by the way) goes.