Milena McKay’s debut novel, The Delicate Things We Make, is the book I recommended most often this year since I read it in January. It’s a very impressive debut, a promise of many good books to come. The Perfect Match in February reinforced that impression, but it’s so different, much lighter and a novella, that some uncertainty could, maybe, linger. There should be none of that maybe-lingering uncertainty left after The Headmistress. A couple of chapters in, I got that giddy feeling that comes from knowing you’re reading a really good book. The good news is, that feeling remained till the end. And after.
Before I get into what the book is about and what makes it so delightful, I have to mention the cover. It’s beautiful, it’s fitting without being too revealing, it’s the perfect doorway to the story itself.
On to the story. Sam Threadneedle literally grew up at Three Dragons Academy, on Dragons Island in Massachusetts, and at almost thirty, is now the Math Chair. And although she should be focusing on the trouble brewing at her beloved school, she can’t get the woman she had a one night stand with while in New York for a conference out of her mind. Over the years, Dragons went from religious and conservative to a much more liberal and inclusive environment, and the trustees aren’t too happy about it. They also resent the large debts the school finds itself in, due in part to their constant fund-cutting. In an attempt to return the school to its Christian roots, they bring in a new headmistress, an expert on reforming boarding schools, or, as Sam and her colleagues see it, decimating said schools. And guess who the dreaded newcomer turns out to be?
When I pick up (or whatever the digital equivalent is) a book, I don’t really care about tropes. I’m not into tropes that much, and if I were, ice queen and age gap probably wouldn’t be at the top of the list. Shocking, I know. This doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a good ice queen/age gap romance, but I don’t purposefully look for them. Milena McKay is making me change my mind though, one book at a time. I mean, who could resist Magdalene Nox? I could one hundred per cent relate to Sam’s infatuation from the moment Magdalene entered.
Magdalene Nox is a marvellous character. Bitchy characters are a lot of fun (and they get the best dialogue) but the line is fine between smart and sexy bitchiness and irredeemability. Magdalene stays firmly on the right side of the line, which allows the reader to fully enjoy her snarky retorts. There’s obviously a lot more to her than meets the eye, even though what meets the eye is already in a league of its own. McKay’s characters are never flat, they’re multidimensional, they make mistakes, they learn from them, they have flaws, and that’s what makes them relatable, even when, as with Magdalene, they’re larger than life: gorgeous, smarter than most people, definitely hotter than most people. And yet so very real, with her own instances of awkwardness as well.
Sam is also relatable in a very different way. She’s a nerd, she loves words and numbers, she’s loyal even when her judgement is clouded by lust and will fight relentlessly for what she feels is right (there’s a reason some call her the fourth dragon), even if it goes against her own interests. She’s the ideal counterpoint to Magdalene’s ice queen.
I won’t mention all the secondary characters but I have a few favourites: Lily, a charming, talented, cheeky, and overall lovely student; Joanne, Sam’s colleague but above all the woman who raised her after she was found as a child on the steps of the Academy chapel; and Willoughby, the resident ginger mouser who couldn’t care less about mice but can be trusted to find the best sunspot at any time of the day. Aloof, haughty, and fiercely independent – in other words, a cat – Willoughby is also the first one to see beyond Magdalene’s icy façade. Cats being smarter than humans and all that.
Being me, I focused on the romance in this review, but The Headmistress is a romantic suspense novel, and Sam and Magdalene face all sorts of dangerous situations. While not properly speaking a whodunit, The Headmistress more than holds its own on the suspense front.
Milena McKay is a generous author. She doesn’t end the story where expected. She goes further. She gives more, both to her characters and to readers. And it could be too much (some authors don’t know when to let go) but it’s not. It’s needed. The story is better because of it.
Milena McKay may still be pretty new on the lesfic scene but she already has a unique voice. As she first proved in The Delicate Things We Make, she doesn’t shy away from sensitive topics yet doesn’t write heavy dramatic books either. The Headmistress is a subtle blend of substance, witty dialogue, humour, and sexiness.
There’s really something to be said for well-written books. I’ve been writing that pretty often lately (here for example). I’ll forgive a lot if the story is good and I like the characters, but it’s so much better when the writing is sensational too. We’re very lucky to have so much choice in lesfic now (I’m old, I remember buying every single wlw book I could find because there were so few), but obviously among all the books coming out every month, some are more memorable than others. I’ve written this before and will keep writing it, we need all the books. That said, some stand the test of time better than others. I’m willing to bet The Headmistress is one of these. This is a book you’re going to want to have on your bookshelf, both digital and physical (and, hopefully, in audio someday because I’d love to hear Magdalene’s “darling” aloud), and read again and again for many years. I know I will.
Edit, December 31st, 2021: If, like me, you want more of Magdalene and Sam, you can download a second epilogue here. It’s sweet and funny, and it’s free.