I’m the last person who would criticize someone’s writing, but I do think I can criticize the moronic plot that the book packagers came up with. (Tinderbox Books LLC came up with the concept, pitched it to Bloomsbury, hired the writer Yelena Black.) It seems like a case where more attention was paid to the book’s cover (which is textured and features an extra, metallic color, and there’s also a downloadable app that interacts with the cover) than to the “content,” or “writing” as it used to be known.
The story seemed promising—it’s essentially the plot of Satan’s School For Girls, remember that 1970s made-for-TV movie? But there really wasn’t any story. [NOT A SPOILER, BECAUSE THERE’S NOTHING TO SPOIL.] On page four, an evil choreographer eviscerates a ballet student into a pile of ashes. Then the main character spends 360 pages trying to make sense of the strange happenings at her ballet school, only to finally learn that an evil choreographer eviscerates ballet students into piles of ashes.
I was excited about this book because it takes place at a ballet school so closely modeled on the School of American Ballet that the original publisher’s summary referred to the fictional school as the School of American Ballet. (The summary was recently changed on Amazon to give the name actually used in the book, New York Ballet Academy.) When I say it was modeled on SAB, I just mean that the location of the school in the book is the same as SAB’s real-life location, and just like in real life, the school is associated with New York City Ballet. I don’t mean that the real-life Peter Martins is necessarily eviscerating students into piles of ashes.
But the ballet theme is just a thin veneer over the clunky plot. Everything ballet-related is sketchy and rushed. The students take a class (boys and girls together, not a partnering class), but they don’t warm up at the barre. They go to see NYCB perform but there’s no description of the dancing, no intermission. They’re learning to dance The Firebird for their workshop performance, but it’s never explained who choreographed this Firebird. It might have been the evil foreign choreographer but it was never clear. There’s talk of how most ballerinas are fragile (really?), but not the main character Vanessa. When the students are having trouble with the choreography, they don’t talk about how to do the steps, they decide they need to understand the emotions behind the roles. Their teachers never give them any kind of corrections, they just tell them they’re wonderful or terrible. With a bit of search and replace, it could really be any kind of school—a school for chefs, wizards, ice skaters, whatever; there’s no specificity.
What did I like about this book? I loved that the teachers would hit the students on the legs with a stick, like in imperial Russia. I loved how a principal dancer at NYCB was forced to stand in front of the curtain after the audience had left, waiting to be punished for making a mistake in her performance. I liked how for twenty years every student cast in the lead of The Firebird had mysteriously vanished, and yet they still kept putting it in the program. In short, I liked everything that was over-the-top, campishly sinister, and ballet-related. There just wasn’t enough stuff like that for my taste. If you enjoy love triangles with one brooding boy and one golden boy, you might get more out of this book than I did.
If you had joined an elite ballet school for the sole purpose of finding out what happened to your missing sister, and people were constantly warning you to beware, and you kept seeing inexplicable things, would you really be surprised to discover that something supernatural was afoot? I would not read the sequel, but I would read something else by Yelena Black. I hope she gets the opportunity to write another book with a more well-constructed storyline.