Milena McKay has a clever knack of bending literary rules just enough so the rule isn’t quite broken but a tiny crack appears. For example, her new book, ‘The Headmistress’, is a romance, but—crack!—there’s an unexpected quirk in the plot; another romance that runs perpendicular across the main. ‘The Headmistress’ contains a mystery but—crack!—there’s some metaphorical intrigue that pulls the reader away just for moment. Oh, you’ve dealt with that mystery? Here is another one.
The appeal of this story is that a person can decide to read it from the distance of their choice.
They could stand back, read at the surface, and thoroughly enjoy the story. Enjoy the chance encounter driven by lust that Sam Threadneedle—the MC whose lens we utilise—experiences, the trouble that Sam finds brewing in her home; Three Dragons Academy, the prestigious school for girls.
Or the reader can take a step closer, raise their eyebrows at the fanciful sentiment of wishing upon a star and the ramifications that the wish creates, maybe flick back a few pages and gasp when Sam is forced to reevaluate her very world when that wish brings forth Magdalene Nox, the new headmistress of the school, or perhaps gasp, “Oh!” when lust begins to crumble the very stones of the buildings.
Or perhaps the reader chooses to sit in their internal Library Reading Room and pour over threads and lines, poking at sentences that twist and turn to escape attention, that hide the clues to create a literary treasure hunt.
Sam Threadneedle, the head of Mathematics, has only ever known Dragons Academy. Left as a baby at the school’s front door and raised as an orphan, she grew to love the stone, the oak, the very shape of Dragon Island. So the arrival of Magdalene Nox is unsettling, unwelcome, and unexpectedly familiar.
Probably by now, a reader might question the choice of the school’s name—Three Dragons Academy—or Sam’s surname—Threadneedle—or Magdalene’s surname—Nox. I know I did. What a strange collection of monikers.
Which means that McKay has decided to toss character and place name rules onto a bonfire, nod at the readers, and smile, “Off you go, then.”
Again, a person could simply read the book for afar, the names blending beautifully into the text. Or maybe they want to look deeply to solve why McKay deliberately chose those names. Here’s something to ponder; the title for Chapter Two is ‘Of Woolgathering At Staff Meetings and Entrances Well Made”. In this chapter, Sam is referred to as the Fourth Dragon. Is it because she defends the school—her home—from outside forces? Is Magdalene Nox, the Ice Queen headmistress, an outside force to oppose? It certainly seems so when Magdalene storms into the dragon’s nest with reform, and restructure, and a metaphorical ruthless sword to cut through the wreckage of the school’s current financial situation. Does Sam stitch the remnants together?
The chapter titles. McKay used this same device in ‘The Delicate Things We Make’. For that book, I dedicated an entire paragraph in my essay to those titles. In each chapter title in ‘The Headmistress’, McKay has chosen to highlight two crucial points for readers to attend (or not—another moment of how close a person wants to be to read the story). However, the ingenuity is the way the title guides the reader, even if the quest is obscured by twists. At the end of each chapter it is very easy to pause on the journey, to take a breath, but the next chapter title won’t allow for that type of dalliance. It tips its head, asks, “Are you ready? Right, let’s go then” and pulls a person along.
I was trying to put my finger on what it is that makes this book slightly different, adjacent to, simply more than. It’s the mythical feel that McKay infuses into the story, as if the school, the island, the characters, the text itself exists as part of a legend; a tale of yore. Which is entirely illogical because Sam and Magdalene, the students, the staff, the school, the school board exist in the present and have a solidity, a reality to their very presence. And yet…and yet. That’s where McKay’s clever writing comes into play. The text is contemporary; the banter, the sex, the interactions—all references to modern life. But she has situated these people and places inside a mythology specifically created for this book, where the characters deliberately refer to swords, and dragons, and guardians, and…and.
And that, ingeniously, is why there is light, why there is oxygen between the lines. It’s important to breath in this story, because if McKay had paused in ‘The Headmistress’ and asked readers to hold an enormous handful of prose—which was the brilliance of ‘The Delicate Things We Make'—they wouldn’t have moved on. But in ‘The Headmistress’, McKay insists that readers move on. The story awaits.
Gather your swords.