Miss Ellicott's for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood is one of my most anticipated 2017 releases. Blackwood's previous trilogy beginning with Jinx is one of my favorites so I wanted to read this new book as soon as I could. I was immediately pulled into the story here and delighted to find a book about sticking it to the patriarchy with magic and a dragon while fighting for what is right.
Chantel is an orphan who attends Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded. Girls who show proficiency in magic and have no other place in the world go there to learn to use their magic. They also have lessons in deportment and are taught to be "shamefast and biddable". Chantel has more trouble with that part. She is prodigiously talented in the area of magic, but when it comes to holding her tongue and deporting, she has to work extra hard. When Miss Ellicott and all the other enchantresses who do the magic (the buttoning) that holds up the city's walls and keeps it safe go missing, Chantel and her two best friends must find a way to help save their city. But first they have to figure out exactly what it is that needs saving and what is the best way to do that.
Chantel is special. She summons her familiar, a tiny green snake, to her at an incredibly early age. Yet she is not your typical "special" heroine. She is a prodigy of magic, but she has been immersed in it almost her entire life and she works hard. She has a practical no-nonsense approach to life that leads her to impatience with people and can cause her to be snappy. When her snake familiar crawls inside her head, it becomes harder for her to control this. She is also told by Miss Ellicott that she is "the chosen one". I loved how Blackwood used this trope and flipped it on its head in ways that both amuse and make a point about free will and choice. Chantel is joined by her best friend Anna. Together they make a perfect team because they balance each other well. Anna is better at being outwardly shamefast and biddable, but, like Chantel, she knows her own mind and uses it to the optimal advantage. She is better at corralling the younger girls at the school and often talks Chantel into finding her patience when she needs it. The girls have always been friends with Bowser, who works in the kitchens and is the only boy resident of the school. He too helps balance Chantel and is a needed part of the team as the elder males who run the city don't want to deal with girls. This team is eventually joined by Franklin, a Marauder boy from outside the city who brings street smarts, knowledge of the outside world, and a mean ability with a crossbow to help out. The four work well together and tend to stick to what they do best. The story mostly belongs to Chantel though, who set off an important series of events by allowing her snake into her head.
The plot is full of mystery and adventure. The kids live in a walled city. The wall has been there for hundreds of years, but now it is in risk of collapse. Marauders (those who live on the outside) with to break the hold the city has on trade. The ruling parties of the city are engaged in an internal power struggle. In classic MG fashion, the kids are the ones who have to save the day. They see things in different ways and are better able to reassess long held prejudices and beliefs. I don't want to say too much because the book is so much fun to experience, but I was truly impressed with the blend of magic, adventure, politics, and ethics. The main theme of the book is "think bigger". Chantel is told this several times, and it is only through this that she is able to figure out a course to take that will help the most people. The existence of the walled city, which was walled to keep out threats but also kept its inhabitants enslaved to their rulers who controlled their food supply, is a timely thematic element all on its own. I really liked how this was threaded through the book, particularly the quote: "a wall becomes a wall in the mind".
Also there is an absentminded dragon with a massive library.
Fans of adventure, fantasy, and girls using all the tools at their disposal to kick butt and take names should read this book.
I read an ARC received at ALA Midwinter from the publisher, Katherine Tegen Books. Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded is on sale March 21st.