Miss Mabel’s School for Girls by Katie Cross

Rating: 4/5 stars

Miss Mabel

Pages: 316

Series: Network, Book 1

Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult, Magic, Witches, Paranormal

I stumbled across this book while scrolling through my eBook collection and I didn’t remember when I got it. Not something unusual for me as I tend to go on book acquisition sprees and then become overwhelmed with all the new titles I have. I then promptly forget about all of the new books I’ve gotten and their premises as I inevitably pick up a title I’ve had for a while so as to not feel overwhelmed by all the new.

However, reading the synopsis of the story (for a… second time?) really intrigued me. It’s been a while since I’ve purposely picked up a new story surrounding witches as I’ve been let down many a time by a book I thought sounded good. Let me assure you that this book did not disappoint. In fact, Cross did a fantastic job at seeing my expectations, judging their height, and then pole vaulting over them like they were nothing. So, well done Cross for writing a book that left me salivating for more. You’d better believe that I went and got the rest of the series as soon as I could once I finished devouring this story!
Not only was this a gripping read, Cross took a unique look at magic and witches that I’ve rarely – if ever – read/seen before. The world itself seems to be full and well thought out. The characters feel like they’ve lived their whole lives, not just like they’re names on a page. I really felt like I was by Bianca’s side as she faced all of her challenges in this story.
I loved the way that Cross slipped clues in about the main plot of the story. As well, she did an amazing job at choosing when and how to slip information to the reader. It never felt like she was trying to feed information to the reader, it all felt organic and often times I found myself realizing how important information was chapters after it’d initially been given. Cross did a great job at hiding clues in plain sight and it’s left me wanting more from her.
I look forward to continuing on with this series. I have high expectations as this book has set extremely high standards for this world. If you love magic and witches, you should give this series a shot.

*Spoilers ahead*

I really enjoyed the way that Cross introduced this world of witches. While it comes across as a history lesson as a way to set up the competition to become Miss Mabel’s assistant, Cross is quickly telling the reader the basic information about the land of Antebellum. Through this tale, the reader is able to learn that there are 5 Networks that got teamed up together to run the humans out of the land. As the years went on, these Networks stopped getting along with each other and no longer really talk.

This is only one of the examples wherein Cross delivered crucial information to the reader in a subtle way. Of course world building is an important part of the story. But what’s even better about Cross’ world history lesson is the fact that she’s planting key information in plain sight.

It was only towards the end of the story that the importance of the Networks not talking to each other was made clear in relation to Miss Mabel. While hints were littered throughout the story, it isn’t until the end of the book when Miss Mabel runs into hiding that the reader is told the likelihood that Miss Mabel was working with the ruler of another Network. It’s possible to put the clues together while reading the story if you’re really looking for them, but Cross does an amazing job at making important information seem commonplace and mundane. It wasn’t until I’d finished the story that I was able to put all of these clues together in order to see how obvious Miss Mabel’s plans had been.

The first part of the book deals with the competition to become Miss Mabel’s assistant and it’s clear as to why only third years are supposed to be allowed to enroll in the challenges. A normal first year going into the school wouldn’t have had the magical prowess that Bianca had. Heck, most third years wouldn’t have the magical prowess that Bianca has even at the beginning of this book.

The first challenge is deceptive in its complexity, as Bianca quickly discovers. While finding your butterfly sounds like a simple task, she ends up finding a swarm of identical butterflies and only one is “hers”. Of course, Bianca’s superb magical talent allowed her to show off just a little more than she probably should have in the first challenge. While I have to admit I enjoyed the mental image of a swarm of butterflies flittering about her classmates, I don’t think her classmates fully knew what was happening.

Of course, Bianca’s flashiness and her reliance on more difficult spells almost caused her to lose to her challenger, Michelle. Michelle used her smarts to collect her butterfly in a timely matter and if it wasn’t for plot armor I’m sure Michelle would have won the challenge.

The second challenge was all about figuring out which poison you’ve drunk and creating the antidote for it. Since Miss Mabel is so sadistic, she chose a poison that witches in training have a high chance of never hearing about beforehand. Thanks to Bianca’s superior teaching before attending the school, she was barely able to figure out that the poison was Vibrio – a poison that the High Priestess of their Network had banned which caused immense pain and the only “cure” was to let it run its course. If Bianca hadn’t shouted out the truth to Priscilla, she probably would have been as bad off as Elana ended up.

I understand that Elana wanted to prove herself and that she didn’t need anyone’s help to get through the challenges, but acting in desperation is not the way to prove that you’re ready for the responsibilities that come along with winning the competition. All Elana ended up winning was prolonged pain and suffering from not heeding good advice.

While there’s a decent amount that goes on between the second and third challenges, I’m going to skip over this for now. In the third challenge, Miss Mabel tests the girls’ loyalty to her above all else. While Priscilla shows her vanity by not being able to function when Miss Mabel attacks her beauty, Bianca shows her dedication to breaking her family’s curse by seeing through Miss Mabel acting as her mother and telling her that her grandmother is dead. Even more cunning than this, Bianca keeps to herself the fact that she saw through Miss Mabel’s spotty acting in order to gain her “trust”. It’s only her father that calls her B and the curse would prevent her mother from being able to wring her hands. You’d think that the one who holds power over the curse would know a little more about it, but Miss Mabel proves time and time again that she underestimates those that she’s up against.

I used quotations there because it’s quite obvious that Miss Mabel never really trusted Bianca in this story. Sure, she used her for her own uses. But that doesn’t equate trust since Miss Mabel didn’t tell Bianca any of her plans before enacting them. On top of that, it’s pretty obvious that Miss Mabel wants Bianca to hate her so that Bianca can be the most powerful witch she can be.

Bianca continuously shows how smart and cunning she is, as well as how far she’s willing to go in order to break the curse that her family’s been suffering through. One of the earliest ways she proves this is through bargaining with Miss Mabel over the contract to become her assistant. While this didn’t work in Bianca’s favour at all, as Miss Mabel double-crossed Bianca to make her angry and try to make her a more powerful witch, this was only the first instance in which Bianca made a deal with Miss Mabel over a contract in order to save her family.

Unfortunately, the final time she tries to make a deal with Miss Mabel – when she signs the invisible ink contract – ends up even more disastrously than this first “deal”. Not only does it end with Miss Mabel killing Bianca’s mother, but it forces Bianca to became Miss Mabel’s slave. While Bianca doesn’t explicitly become a slave, she has signed away her life to Miss Mabel without knowing the terms of the contract. She knows that she’ll need to kill the High Priestess, but she doesn’t know how or when. All Bianca really knows about it is that she isn’t allowed to speak about the deal to anyone.

While it comes out that Bianca’s dad is the head if the Protectors for the Network and isn’t supposed to have a family, it’s clear that the High Priestess knew about this all along and was willing to make an exception for him. Derek (Bianca’s dad) is so good at his job that the High Priestess wasn’t willing to give him up. Based on the way that Bianca “talked”/thought about her father, it was clear that he was an important person to the Network. While I couldn’t guess what job he held, Cross was clear about Derek being important.

The reason that I bring up Derek now is that he was the one who decided that Bianca should agree to the Binding that Miss Mabel was going to present Bianca with about killing the High Priestess. While neither the High Priestess nor Derek wanted to see Miss Mabel win, they were willing to work around the Binding as it was the best case scenario that they could think of. Having someone on the inside of Miss Mabel’s plans sounds like a good idea, but I don’t think they considered Bianca getting sworn to not be able to tell them anything about Miss Mabel’s plans.

In order to be as powerful as you can be, a witch in this world needs to have a complete circlet to signify the 3 skills you’re proficient in enough to pass the tests for. Miss Mabel forces Bianca to take the 3 marks that she believes will help her (Miss Mabel) out the most.

The first mark that Miss Mabel forces Bianca to take is her Esbat mark. Not only is this one of the most difficult marks to get, it’s normally a 12 week course that Miss Mabel forces Bianca to complete in 3 weeks. Bianca goes through hell trying to complete the training for this mark as the “deal” she made with Miss Mabel was get to get this mark in exchange for the curse being lifted from her grandmother. While Bianca completes her end of the bargain, Miss Mabel reneges on hers and Bianca’s grandmother dies before the end of the book.

Not only has Miss Mabel already made this course more difficult than usual by giving Bianca a quarter of the usual time to complete it, she made the exam for the mark harder as well. Barely having passed the written portion of the exam – thanks once again to plot armor – Bianca knew that she had to do exceptionally on the practical portion of the exam to actually get the mark. Of course Bianca had to sneak into the actual Esbat meeting to prove that she belonged there and had what it took in order to receive the mark. If Derek hadn’t been teaching Bianca since she was a young girl, there’s no way that Bianca would have passed this challenge. Since her dad is such a badass, Bianca managed to do better than expected.

I do have to admit that my favourite part of this scene was Bianca getting to diss the High Priestess and her snooty attitude. By mentioning the Esbat before the doors were magically shielding, the High Priestess really slipped up. It was after realizing that the High Priestess was pretending to be just another councilor that Bianca was able to sass her and earn her mark. Of course, not having her shoes on or her hair in a bun was a great way to sass the whole council without even meaning to. Well done, Bianca.

The second mark that Bianca completes is the Advanced Curses and Hexes mark. Miss Mabel forces Bianca to practice hexes on a dying cat that she finds for Bianca since “it’s going to die anyways”. Bianca, being cunning and more compassionate than Miss Mabel, tricks Miss Mabel by creating a duplicate of the cat so she’s not actually hexing a living being. While Miss Mabel thinks that Bianca is doing as she was told, Bianca instead nurses the cat back to health in the privacy of her room. Of course, Bianca feels bad “hexing” the duplicate even knowing that it isn’t really a living creature.

When Miss Mabel catches Bianca dispelling the duplicate cat during one of her practice sessions, Miss Mabel realizes that Bianca was able to silently cast a spell to mimic Miss Celia’s voice. This showed Miss Mabel that Bianca was already more powerful and capable than she’d anticipated, which was both a good thing and a bad thing. Good for Miss Mabel as it allowed her to change her plans up and make them more evil. Bad for Bianca because she lost part of the advantage that she held over Miss Mabel. Bianca’s biggest power is her brain and her ability to think through situations and act under pressure. By showing Miss Mabel that Bianca had already used these skills on her (Miss Mabel), Bianca became an even bigger blip on Miss Mabel’s radar.

The third mark that Bianca completes is the Advanced Defensive Magic mark. Miss Mabel forces her to complete this spell while at the same time taking the exam for the Advanced Curses and Hexes mark. As if taking 2 exams at the same time wasn’t hard enough, Miss Mabel forces Bianca to undergo a Mactos, or a fight to the death, in order to prove her capabilities. Already knowing that Derek is Bianca’s dad, Miss Mabel used this as a chance to see how good Bianca was after learning from the best defensive magic user there is.

When talking about the second mark, I briefly mentioned the dying cat. Before being introduced to this cat, we’re introduced to a calico cat. Way back at the beginning of this book I thought that this calico cat was Miss Mabel’s familiar or something the way that nobody batted an eye at it strutting around the school. I mean, what kind of school is just going to let a stray cat run around freely?

Well, I was super wrong about the calico cat. I thought that this cat was Miss Mabel’s familiar because it seemed to be keeping a close eye on Bianca. Since the cat was introduced during the challenges, I figured that this was Miss Mabel’s way of keeping an eye on the competitors without actually being there herself. I was right about the cat keeping an eye on Bianca, but there’s no way that Bianca’s mom was going to be Miss Mabel’s familiar.

I love the idea of Bianca’s mom coming along with her daughter to give her silent (and unknown) support. I can’t imagine it was easy to allow you 16 year old daughter walk into the enemy’s lair alone. Especially when this same daughter is trying to break a family curse that’s going to kill her within the year. Being able to transform into a cat to tag along was brilliant.

Now, back to the dying cat. I figured that Bianca’s dad never responded to her letters because he was busy on a mission for the Network. I never would have imagined that the reason he wasn’t answering was because he was with Bianca. It sucks that he got super injured while in his cat form, but it’s really heartwarming to know that Bianca helped nurse her own father back to health. Her parents cared so much about her that they were both willing to drop everything in order to give her silent support and to be there, just in case.

Finally, I want to bring up Jackie’s reading of Bianca. I found it really interesting that Jackie laid out two paths that Bianca could possibly follow, depending on the choices that she was going to have to make. Of course, neither path was a particularly good one.

The left path consisted of the Scales card (justice and balance), the High Priestess card (death satisfies the uneven scales), and the Fool card (denial). While this path sounds slightly better than the right path, it certainly doesn’t sound good.

The right path consisted of the Guardian card (strength to fight the enemy), the High Priest of Spears card (determination and purpose), and the Raven card (death and doom; betrayal). When paired together, the Guardian and the High Priest of Spears represent war.

I have to believe that we’ll see more of the outcome of Bianca’s choices, and thus the path she walks, throughout the rest of the series and that these paths didn’t only represent the happenings of this book. While it’s easy to see that in this book Bianca ended up following the right path, as Miss Mabel continuously betrayed Bianca and escape with the intent to start a war, I don’t think that that’s all that this prediction was talking about. It’s already known to Bianca’s side of the war that Bianca is going to be expected to kill the High Priestess but I don’t think that’s the only way that Miss Mabel is going to force Bianca to betray the ones she loves. As well, Bianca is going to do everything in her power to betray Miss Mabel and help the “good guys” out. Bianca is determined to break the curse on herself even though her mother and grandmother have already died. But this path will be littered by death and doom as the two sides fight for what they want the Networks to be.

Alternatively to having to choose between these path, I find myself believing that the left path was a short term prediction while the right path was a long term prediction for the series and Bianca’s life. In this book Bianca was fighting for justice for her family, not giving up even when things seemed impossible. But the world demands balance as so while Bianca is fighting for justice, Miss Mabel is fighting against it. In order to even the scales, Miss Mabel takes from Bianca that which she cherishes the most – her family. While Miss Mabel is doing this so as to give herself a more powerful puppet, I believe that this death balanced the scales of justice, giving the “good guys” side of the equation a more even chance of being able to defeat Miss Mabel for good. Bianca was in denial about how truly evil Miss Mabel was throughout the whole story, expecting her (Miss Mabel) to keep her side of any bargain made. Bianca was made the fool by underestimating Miss Mabel’s cunning time and time again. On the other side of things, Miss Mabel was made the fool by looking down on Bianca, not expecting her to be cunning at all or more powerful than she was willing to admit to the enemy.

I can’t wait to learn how these predictions further play out throughout the Network series. It won’t be long before I find myself picking up the next book in the series and re-immersing myself in the magic of the land.

8 thoughts on “Miss Mabel’s School for Girls by Katie Cross

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