Dark Companion: Respectable spooky-boarding-school story

Dark Companion by Marta AcostaDark Companion by Marta Acosta

Jane grew up as an unloved foster child in a rough neighborhood full of gangsters and pimps. Inspired by a friend’s death to excel in school, Jane has earned a scholarship to the exclusive Birch Grove Academy for Girls. She sees this as a ticket out of the violence and exploitation she sees all around her, but instead she finds that there are predators among the rich as well…

Dark Companion by Marta Acosta fits comfortably in with the “dark supernatural secret at a girls’ boarding school” subgenre of novels — though the main secret isn’t technically supernatural, and it isn’t a boarding school for anyone but Jane (as the “charity” student, she’s given a cottage on the grounds to live in, while the other students live in the nearby town). Jane makes new friends among the Birch Grove girls, meets two potential love interests and, by the way, learns that the last charity student at Birch Grove disappeared mysteriously.

The novel provides some Gothic thrills and chills, but is a bit of a bumpy ride at times. The problem is that roughly the first half of Dark Companion is fun to read, but not much is going on. Then, the second half has much more going on, but is often painful to read — not because of the writing itself, but because of the choices made by the heroine.

The first part, the getting-to-know-Birch-Grove part, is rather enchanting because it shows Jane encountering luxuries for the first time — both real luxuries like expensive clothing, and little luxuries that many take for granted, such as simply having a space of one’s own. Also enchanting is Jane’s new friend Mary Violet, a bubbly romantic who always uses violet ink, translates French phrases humorously into American teen slang, and steals every scene. I actually liked her better than I liked Jane. Jane can be a little off-putting with her disdain for anything that isn’t strictly logical. In general, I think it’s usually a mistake when authors create a protagonist who derides the very genre of fiction the reader is eagerly consuming. While intellectually the reader knows it’s Jane, not Marta Acosta, who’s sneering at Gothic and paranormal fiction, it’s still… as I said, off-putting.

Then, as the romantic plotline comes to the fore, Jane makes some truly horrible choices. She lets a smarmy guy take advantage of her in cringe-inducing ways and puts up with an icky amount of ill-treatment. And the thing is, this is part of the point. It’s part of her character journey and she doesn’t stay a doormat forever. That doesn’t make it any easier to take while she’s in the middle of it, however, and I think some readers will set down Dark Companion during these scenes and never pick it back up. Spineless heroines are all too common in YA paranormal fiction, and for a while Jane appears to be another one. Acosta takes care, though, to present this unhealthy relationship as an unhealthy relationship, and not as a grand romance for the ages. Meanwhile, Jane’s other potential romance is a much saner one, though mired in an unnecessary misunderstanding.

The paranormal elements in Dark Companion are unusual. The main type of “paranormal” being in this book turns out to have a biological basis rather than being magical at all. Another aspect of the story does appear to be magical, but appears only in hints until the very end.

The spooky-boarding-school trope remains an appealing one, and Dark Companion is a respectable addition to that genre, neither the best nor the worst of its kind that I’ve read. The submissiveness of the heroine is troubling, but is temporary and is not presented as a good thing. You might consider giving this novel a try if you’re looking for something in the vein of Libba Bray’s GEMMA DOYLE series, Chloe Neill’s DARK ELITE, or maybe even (the admittedly much more violent) THE WATCHERS series by Veronica Wolff. I also was reminded of Kate Cann’s RAYNE books in a few places, and I’ll add that I really liked Cann’s duology and would recommend it to anyone who stumbles across this review after enjoying Dark Companion.

One more aspect of Dark Companion that I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention: the quotes at the beginning of each chapter! Acosta chooses fantastically fitting quotes from classic Gothic and supernatural fiction; they’re gorgeously written and help set the mood for the chapter to come. Some of these novels I’ve never read, others I haven’t read since high school, and all of them I now want to read or reread. Warning: you may find your to-read list growing as you read Dark Companion!

Orphaned at the age of six, Jane Williams has grown up in a series of foster homes, learning to survive in the shadows of life. Through hard work and determination, she manages to win a scholarship to the exclusive Birch Grove Academy. There, for the first time, Jane finds herself accepted by a group of friends. She even starts tutoring the headmistress’s gorgeous son, Lucien. Things seem too good to be true. They are. The more she learns about Birch Grove’s recent past, the more Jane comes to suspect that there is something sinister going on. Why did the wife of a popular teacher kill herself? What happened to the former scholarship student, whose place Jane took? Why does Lucien’s brother, Jack, seem to dislike her so much? As Jane begins to piece together the answers to the puzzle, she must find out why she was brought to Birch Grove—and what she would risk to stay there….

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KELLY LASITER is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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3 comments

  1. The idea of Jane letting herself be controlled or manipulated, while difficult to take, is a really accurate depiction of someone who spent a lot of time in the foster system. Surprisingly, these kids are often defiant and compliant (with different people) at the same time! It doesn’t mean foster parents are bad people –usually these kids have led such chaotic lives that they never learned basic socialization skills, and are casting around for a way to make themselves valued to *someone*. So, cringe-inducing and uncomfortable, but accurate.

    • *nod* It’s one of those things where it makes sense in the story but kind of hurts to read (and in her case the foster parent really was awful). It feels for a while like she’s going to fall into the “spineless YA heroine” thing even though it’s actually part of her growth as a character.

  2. Well, I’m glad the writer has her learn from it and grow out of it! It sounds like an interesting read overall.

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