Lily Noble is a sophomore at the exclusive Vaughn school; she has the right parents, the right friends, fits in all the right circles, does all the right things. But she doesn't feel like she quite belongs. She befriends Hazel Tobias, new girl, punk attitude, lots of previous schools, misses her last one, Bertram, much more brown. (I couldn't figure out whether Koja meant Hazel to be black or not; I think not, but I decided to read her as black anyway, why not.--Okay, having read other reviews, a lot of people read Hazel as black; there was a moment that threw me when Hazel described herself as "not blonde," where I'd expect "black" or "African American," but maybe it's a stray trace of white writer being reluctant to name people's races outright.)
Koja's prose is as distinctive as ever, but this didn't grab me, maybe because I never really warmed up to any of the major characters. Koja is really good on the obliviousness and selfishness of teenagers, especially privileged ones: Lily's unthinking cruelty to her roommate, for example, and her contempt for her kind of meaningless social class circle, which she doesn't recognize comes from having a choice to belong or not, which not everyone has; her disregard of people outside her social circles (I raised my eyebrow at a lot of the "ESL" comments). It's notable most of the girls in the book are bitches, that the sweetest people Lily knows -- or notices -- are male; the mothers are awful, the fathers reserved but actually care; some of the female teachers are okay. There's a great emphasis on female friendship -- sometimes "friendship" -- but the ending and the treatment of minor female characters undercuts taht for me.
It's a pattern I've seen before in Koja's work, these really intense romantic female friendships that suddenly or not so suddenly flame out (Skin,Kissing the Bee Library), and I can't decide whether or not I'm judging them fairly or not, because here and in Skin
the narrator/POV character clearly isn't quite reliable, and it's not as simple as one girl's good and the other's bad. (And you can only rely on men in the end.) But I'm not sure they get far enough away from that pattern, either.
And it might just have not grabbed me because I don't get the boarding school fascination. It seems like a lot more (American, anyway) YA books are set in boarding schools since Harry Potter and ... I don't share the fascination. They kind of creep me out, actually. Like wasps' nests (WASPs' nests, wow, that was not on purpose).
So now that I'm writing it up, I think a lot of the things I disliked -- especially about Lily's cruelties, and her choice, which seemed really not set up at first but makes more sense the more that I think about -- are purposeful. (Except for the gender stuff.) This may be the only one of the boarding school books I've seen really take on class, except for Holly Black's Curse Worker's series, and this one is ultimately much chillier about it.
Random yay: Magnus went to my high school! Sorry, I just kind of love it when anyone's heard of it.