The Shadows Were People: A Review of ‘Sanctuary Bay’

cover71427-mediumAfter an unsettling flashback to a childhood trauma, Sanctuary Bay, by Laura Burns and Melinda Metz (St Martin’s Press, January 2016), begins at sea, with Sarah, an orphan and foster-kid, being whisked towards a mysterious school on a remote island; Sanctuary Bay Academy, the establishment in question, is shrouded in secrecy, but apparently responsible for producing the cream of society, from politics and business to show business and science. For Sarah, who could never have dreamed of making anything of her life, her sudden recruitment by the academy seems like a dream. “Seems” being the operative word…

Sanctuary Bay is who I am now.

For the first chunk of Sanctuary Bay, I thought I was reading a fairly standard teen melodrama; a love triangle emerges early on, a kindly teacher sees Sarah’s unlocked potential and the main character is haunted by her past. Then, suddenly, the story becomes something else entirely, with clandestine societies and alarming conspiracies.  The second half of the book is almost disturbingly exciting; new plot developments are revealed rapidly and the pace is electrifying. Quite a bit of it is genuinely creepy.

There are plenty of intriguing characters at Sanctuary Bay Academy; Sarah’s roommate Izzy is delightfully snarky and Dr Diaz, the chemistry teacher who becomes Sarah’s confidant, is also an interesting creation. Both of these characters become more developed as the novel progresses, and I enjoyed finding out more about them. Sarah herself is less engaging but her immersion in the action means her cipher-like persona is essential for mirroring the reader’s own confusion with events spiralling around her.

As one, they all dropped to the grass, still moving, but now crawling on their bellies. About half a minute later, they were up again, running. Moving like they had a single brain.  She couldn’t look away, watching until they circled around the edge of the building and out of sight.

I also enjoyed the creepiness of the setting; the school is completely cut off from society, with students signing up for full “immersion,” meaning they do not leave or contact their families for the duration of their stay. Also on the island: a former POW camp and, creating no notions of foreboding whatsoever, an abandoned lunatic asylum.  The island only gets weirder as the novel goes on, in ways I can’t go into without spoiling it, but, suffice to say, there is some dubious business being conducted at Sanctuary Bay Academy.

I assume that this is to be the first in a series, and I’ll be interested to see where Burns and Metz take the story from here. The way the action unfolds in the final third creates plenty of opportunities for further development, in which I hope Sarah will become a bit more of a badass (and maybe talk less about her dead parents. Just a suggestion).

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