The dog days of summer – complete with intense heat, oppressive humidity, and a significant chance of random thunderstorms at any moment – may not seem like an ideal time for a spooky story about witches, murder, and dark academia to hit shelves. Yet, Victoria Lee’s latest novel, A Lesson in Vengeance, arrives like a breath of fresh air anyway, promising the biting chill and ghostly threat of Fall, even as August winds down.
Dripping with atmosphere, the story is set at the infamous Dalloway School, a prepster’s paradise with a dark history of death and violence. Founded by a woman who was once accused as a Salem witch, Dalloway has its own secrets to keep, including what really happened to The Dalloway Five, a quartet of young girls who were rumored to be witches, who all died in mysterious and inexplicable circumstances.
Felicity Morrow is a Dalloway student who has undergone more than her fair share of trauma. Institutionalized after the death of her girlfriend Alex the previous year, she has returned to school for another attempt at her senior year in the hopes of finding something like a future. She’s also chosen to return to Godwin House, the dormitory where so many of her best and worst days took place. (And where Alex also lived before her death.)
New Godwin resident Ellis Haley is a prodigy, already an acclaimed author in her own right before she’s even graduated. She’s working on a new novel, a story that she claims will reinvent the world of the Dalloway Five and explore how their deaths might have come about without magic or supernatural influence.
The story is part thriller, part ghost story, and part meditation on trauma, as Felicity struggles to let go of Alex and the dark thoughts that have consumed her ever since she started digging into the world of the Dalloway Five for her thesis project. Convinced that magic is not only real but that the ghost of Dalloway Five ring leader Margery Lamont has somehow cursed her from beyond the grave, Felicity walks a fine line between madness and obsession, even as she attempts to leave her love of the dark behind for good.
Because Felicity is a fairly unreliable narrator, it can often feel difficult to know what’s real and what isn’t, or how certain events she’s remembering or retelling actually unfolded. It makes for some significant shocks toward the end of the novel, but those surprises often feel wildly convenient, if only because they directly contradict things we’ve been told before. (Sometimes more than once.)
But A Lesson in Vengeance nevertheless handles Felicity’s mental illness with deft care, even as it explores the competing class and intellectual pressures being part of life at Dalloway places on her. And her relationship with Ellis grows more complicated, the story digs into complex emotional subplots about elitism and the way that wealth and privilege color the morality of those who possess either or both of those things. What would you do, if you knew you wouldn’t pay any sort of price for it? If consequences were no object? If magic was real?
All of the characters in Lee’s story are varying shades of unlikeable – perhaps that’s par for the course in any story about rich boarding school girls, but there are no real heroes in A Lesson in Vengeance. Everyone behaves badly and no one is strictly “good”, which may prove an issue for readers who like clear lines about who the hero in any particular story might be. (It’s very possible this novel doesn’t have one, in the strictest sense.)
But, because Lee is willing to let her characters be dark, cruel, and selfish, even potentially sociopathic at points, there are plenty of creepy, even violent twists to be had. (One sequence in which Ellis and Felicity go hunting to test out some theories about a rifle is particularly uncomfortable.) This is a story that will keep you on your toes – both in terms of twists and character development. Does every shocking narrative swerve work? Not always. But it’s a fascinating ride all the same.
A Lesson in Vengeance is available now. Let us know if you’re going to give it a look!