St. Stephen’s Academy, Yorkshire, 1931. A society unto itself, populated by boys reveling in life’s first big mistakes and men still learning how to live with the consequences of their own. They live a cloistered life, exotic to modern eyes, founded upon privilege and duty, ruled by byzantine and often unspoken laws, haunted by injuries both casual and calculated. Yet within those austere corridors can be found windows of enchantment, unruly love, and a wild sort of freedom, all vanished, it seems, from our time.

Fourteen-year-old Gray Riding—bookish and yearning for approval—filters life through the eyes of the character he has created, one Valarious, knight-in-training, a hero more bold and glamorous than he. Riding’s course is altered by the arrival at the Academy of Cordelia Líoht, the vivacious goddaughter of his Housemaster, John Grieves, nicknamed Grievous. Grieves, too, is at a crossroads, forced to grapple with history both collective and personal as he manages difficult students, a precocious goddaughter, and the infinitely more difficult task of rescuing Cordelia's mother, the woman he secretly loves, from poor health and worse decisions.

Told from a variety of viewpoints, Grievous takes us inside the crucible of St. Stephen’s while retaining a clear-eyed, contemporary sensibility, drawing out the urges and mercies hidden beneath the school’s unsparing surface. The Academy’s codes may seem antique, but even when the characters travel beyond its walls—from the streets of London and Paris, to the marshes of Kent and the spas of Europe—they hear its homing call, and can't help but feel that its society and its trials are more vital than any others they will come to know.

In brisk, witty, glittering prose reminiscent of the novels of Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett, or Vladimir Nabokov, H. S. Cross here explores “a school as nuanced and secretive as J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts” (The Rumpus) in this return to the world of her acclaimed coming-of-age novel Wilberforce.


Starred review

This is a sequel to the U.S. writer’s immersive debut about a British boarding school in the 1920s and shows her quirks and craft deployed to better effect

Five years after the upheaval depicted in Wilberforce (2015), life at St. Stephen’s Academy has returned to its version of normalcy. That is to say, its public school boys talk a strange slang while enduring bullying, caning, and countless other rituals: “What was to be worn when and how, who could be addressed and in what manner.” The story chronicles the period of March to December 1931, and it’s a busy tale that flits among a large cast linked by complicated ties of blood, friendship, or animosity.

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© H. S. Cross