As a teen I was a big fan of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series, which is set in an elite boarding school that’s a front for a training academy for spies – they were a lot of fun! Since they were heavy on the teen drama, I was interested to see that she’d turned her hand to middle grade with her new book, The Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valour.
Book: The Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor by Ally Carter
Read before: No
Ownership: I borrowed a proof copy from Justine at I Should Read That! All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Occasional non-detailed mention of child abuse (physical and emotional).
When orphan April accidentally sets a museum exhibit on fire while attempting to discover a secret about the mother who abandoned her, she is whisked away from a string of unhappy care homes to Winterborne House. The Winterbornes are the subject of mystery – all but one of the wealthy family died in a boating accident, and the sole survivor, a young boy at the time, disappeared ten years ago on his 21st birthday. His butler now maintains the house and takes in orphaned children in memory of his missing master… but there’s more going on than meets the eye, and April might hold the key to solving the mystery of Gabriel’s disappearance.
From the title, I’d assumed that we were getting an academy book, with talented children selected to train for being… con artists? spies? assassins? Something to do with ‘vengeance’ and ‘valour’, anyway. But that’s not at all what this book is about. The children are looked after by the butler, Smithers, and the director of the Winterborne Foundation, Isabella Nelson, but they seem to be mostly left to their own devices. True, all of them have talents that are somewhat unusual for children, but there’s no guidance from the adults, so this falls more into the straightforward adventure/mystery zone than a training school story.
April is a fun, plucky middle grade heroine – we’ve seen this kind of character a hundred times, but she’s likeable enough and does the job of driving the plot along. Then there’s Sadie the inventor, who was a little too ‘absent-minded genius’ for my liking; Colin, who was raised by con artists; Violet, who is painfully shy (implied to be because of past trauma); and her adoptive brother Tim, who is fiercely protective and good at dealing with injuries. They make up an effective little gang, but we don’t really get an awful lot of insight into any of their characters, excepting Tim, who is the oldest, and the most open about the abuse he has previously suffered. He definitely feels like the most mature, and I would have liked the other characters to have been more on this level of nuance – perhaps in the future books in the series the characters will have more space to develop. There’s an overt theme of found family (one of the adults says at one point, ‘family isn’t always something we’re born into’, which is a great line) and again, I think this could be brilliant if the characters are allowed time to become more rounded.
I found the setting a little hard to get my head around to start with; the book takes place in America, but the feel is very classically British, with a big old mansion full of secrets. The spellings have been Anglicized for the UK publication, even in the title, but words like ‘sidewalk’ remain intact, which kind of gives it a half-finished feeling that took me a while to get my head around. (Also, is anyone else thinking that ‘Valour and Vengeance’ would sound a lot better to say than ‘Vengeance and Valour’? The actual title feels like they’re the wrong way round to me, like ‘tock-tick’.) That being said, once the setting narrows down to Winterborne House itself, the mystery gets going and the pace picks up, fairly rollicking to the end. There’s a lot of peril, a dramatic showdown, and maybe even a hidden treasure…
On the whole, I liked this, but I don’t think it’s particularly memorable. It’s enjoyable enough, but nothing spectacular – it would certainly fill a hole if you have a voracious reader who loves a mystery story! Three and a half out of five cats.