I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Sanctuary Bay by Laura J. Burns, Melinda Metz
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on January 19 2016
Genres: Young adult, Thriller
Format: Finished hardcover
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The nitty-gritty: A twisty and addictive mystery with cool science fiction overtones, full of atmosphere galore.
I’ve read two outrageous stories in the past week, and this is one of them. (The other being Burning Midnight which I’ll be reviewing later in the week.) And when I say “outrageous,” I mean crazy plots that blew me away with their creative and yes, CRAZY ideas. I thoroughly enjoyed Sanctuary Bay, and while I did have a couple of issues with the story, I have to recommend it for sheer entertainment value. The authors take the idea of a mystery at an exclusive prep school and twist it into an exciting and hard-to-put-down story that just keeps getting crazier the more you read. This book is escapist fiction at its best. Deep down you know what’s happening is ridiculous at times, and yet you can’t stop reading.
Let me set the stage for you. Sarah is a foster kid who has never had any breaks in her life. Her parents were both murdered when she was very young, leaving her to drift through the foster system for most of her life. But one day, she’s told she’s been given a full scholarship to attend a very exclusive school called Sanctuary Bay, where only the best and brightest (and richest!) are allowed to attend. Sarah can hardly believe her luck, but once she actually arrives at the school—by boat, because it’s located on an island—she discovers some hard truths. Because of the school’s “full immersion” program, students aren’t allowed to leave at all until they graduate. Not only that, but all contact with friends and family is severed, as there are no cell phones or internet access at all.
Sarah isn’t too concerned about that, since she doesn’t have any family left, but she is concerned about being dumped into an environment where every other student comes from rich and famous families. But when she’s asked to join a secret society of students called the Wolfpack, she feels acceptance and friendship for the first time in her life. Hanging with her roommates Izzy and Karina and the other members of the group makes Sarah happy, especially after she drinks a strange brew called Blutgrog at the beginning of every meeting. The leader of the Wolfpack, a senior named Nate, stages “missions” for the group to prove their loyalty to one another. But when one of those missions turns deadly, Sarah realizes she’s in way over her head, and that Sanctuary Bay is anything but a sanctuary.
With non-Wolfpack student Ethan to help, Sarah sets out to discover what’s really hidden behind the walls of the school, before it’s too late.
Sanctuary Bay starts with a typical high school story, complete with peer pressure, jealousy, competition among students and cattiness, all the elements you’d expect to find in a drama about teens. I liked the fact that although these teens are mostly privileged, rich and smart, Sarah feels like a fish out of water, as she’s none of these things. Throw in the fact that she’s of mixed race and a foster kid, well, you can imagine she has one big chip on her shoulder. At first I thought the teen drama was going to overtake the plot, but it doesn’t take too long before Sarah is plunged headlong into the mysteries surrounding the school, after which most of that drama falls away. Yes, there’s some romantic angst at first, as Sarah starts to crush on not one but two boys (one of which is her roommate Karina’s boyfriend!), but it soon becomes clear that the secret goings-on at Sanctuary Bay are far more important than who’s sleeping with who.
Burns and Metz give Sarah a truly fascinating ability, one which I’d never heard of before. Not only does Sarah have an eidetic (photographic) memory, but she has something called “hyperthymesia,” the strange ability to remember with clarity every single detail of her daily life, even when she was two or three years old. Because of this, she often falls into fugue states where she’s not certain whether she’s remembering the past or dreaming. This ability plays an important part later in the story, when the reader finally gets to learn what’s really going on at Sanctuary Bay. It also creates a chasm between Sarah and her peers, as most of them think she’s crazy.
The atmosphere was so well done, that I felt as if I were actually there on the island. The cold wind, the deadly cliffs, the freezing rain and the vast corridors of the school all gave the story a Gothic feel that chilled me to the bone. The authors add not one, but two crumbling and deserted structures to the land around the school. First, the tunnels of an old POW prison lie directly under the foundation of the school, and farther away are the ruins of an abandoned lunatic asylum. Add all these together and you get a delightfully creepy setting with so many possibilities.
So what didn’t work for me? Well, a couple of things, but they’re minor and didn’t detract much from my overall enjoyment of the story. I wasn’t too keen on Sarah in the beginning, since she has the biggest chip on her shoulder ever in regards to her “mixed race heritage/poor foster kid/I’ve had to struggle my whole life/my parents were murdered” attitude. I get that the authors were probably trying to use these things to discuss “issues,” but Sarah’s insecurities and her anger towards the other students did the opposite of what I think was intended, which was to make her a sympathetic character.
I also thought the authors’ inclusion of diversity in the book was too heavy-handed. I’m not saying I don’t applaud them for writing a story with lots of diversity, but going out of their way to comment on each student’s race and background, hair and skin color felt way too forced, almost as if they wanted to include diversity for its own sake, and not for the benefit of the story.
But if you’re looking for twists, sinister plots, secret government shenanigans and lots more, you won’t find a more entertaining story than Sanctuary Bay. The authors do a great job of explaining all the mysteries, including how Sarah’s murdered parents fit into the story, and they even wind things up on a hopeful note. I was completely immersed in this story, and despite my brain trying to step in and say “Hey, that is utterly ridiculous! There’s no way that would ever happen!”, I happily ignored it and kept reading.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.