REVIEW: They’re Watching You by Chelsea Ichaso
Dear Ms. Ichaso:
I’m not sure if I knew this book was tagged as Young Adult Fiction when I requested it. I just knew it was suspense set at a posh boarding school. It does feel YA in some way I can’t quite describe. Or at least not without seeming to be dissing it. I guess what it comes down to is though the subject matter could be viewed as dark and there are some “adult themes” (not the sexy kind; more the murdery, vast-conspiracy kind), there is something kind of unsophisticated and simple about the story and the narrative voice. To be fair, I guess that could be seen as a diss, since a lot of YA fiction, especially these days, rises above those stereotypes.
When the story opens, Maren Montgomery (whom I keep wanting to call Maren Morris because of the country singer) is in chemistry class with her new lab partner, the goofy, charming screw-up Gavin. Maren has been recently paired with Gavin because her former lab partner, roommate and best friend, Polly, disappeared from prestigious Torrey-Wells Academy several weeks before. Maren thinks Polly’s disappearance is suspicious, though she left a note and everyone else thinks Polly simply ran away. Maren and Polly, formerly inseparable, had grown apart in the weeks before Polly went missing; Polly was spending all her time with Annabelle, a snooty, rich ballet dancer straight out of mean-girl central casting. But the last time Maren saw Polly, she was distraught and wanted Maren to meet her later in the day, promising to disclose what was troubling her. Polly never showed, and Maren is now sure there is something more to Polly’s absence.
Searching Polly’s belongings, Maren finds an invitation to something called the Gamemaster’s Society. Maren is sure Annabelle is the gamemaster, and so she endeavors to get an invitation to the society through her. She is successful, and that night with much secret doings and fanfare and hooded black cloaks, Maren meets the other potential initiates, as well as member of the society. She’s surprised to find that Gavin is a member, but figures that he may be able to help her in her quest to find information on what happened to Polly.
Maren is also a bit discomfited to find that one of the other initiates is Remington Cruz, a classmate she had briefly had a crush on the previous year.
(A note here about the location of much of the Gamemasters Society action: it’s an abandoned, burned out “cathedral” on the school grounds. I double-checked my understanding of the word cathedral here, and Wikipedia agrees that it’s a church that serves as “the central church of a diocese, conference or episcopate.” So, unlikely to be on the grounds of a posh private school. Also not passing the smell test was the idea that a huge, partially burned building would be allowed to stand on those grounds – wouldn’t it have been demolished? It sounds like a safety hazard to me. Anyway, a book about a vast conspiracy involving a secret society at a private school can probably not be expected to be totally grounded in reality, but still – details matter.)
The rest of the book is basically Maren (and Remington, who also passes the initial tests to become a member of the Society) running around campus getting involved in increasingly sinister scenarios (in one, a fellow student is poisoned) while trying to find out where Polly is. Maren also discovers that the Society has members not just in the student body, but in the faculty. She faces many dilemmas about who she can trust, which usually having her ping-ponging between Gavin and Remington.
Maren is not a particularly compelling heroine; she’s fine but lacks a strong narrative voice or personality. In a way, she felt more like a real teenager to me, albeit one that proves to be smarter and more competent in facing off with the Gamemaster Society than one might expect.
Suspense is all about the twists (was it always that way? I haven’t been reading it for very long). Some smaller ones were kind of lame – it’s pretty obvious at a critical point in the story that going to an authority figure to expose the society isn’t going to work out as planned. One of the big ones was obvious from very early on (at least I expect that it was supposed to be a surprise though it wasn’t; I’m never sure though, with suspense).
There were two related twists near the end that I didn’t really see coming, and I appreciated that – they weren’t surprising just because they were out of left field; they made sense in the context of the story (I mean, as much as anything made sense in a story where there has to be a high suspension of disbelief).
They’re Watching You held my attention, but I ultimately think I would have liked it more if I read it when I was in high school (which was, um, a long time ago). Not specifically because it’s not very sophisticated and I imagine that teenage readers aren’t sophisticated readers; more because I know that at a certain age – probably starting in young adolescence, actually, I was THRILLED to read stories that had people around my age living lives that were so much more glamorous, exciting and thrilling than mine. My grade for this, at my current age, is a B-.