Book: The Maidens
Author: Alex Michaelides
Publisher: Celadon Books
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Synopsis: “Edward Fosca is a murderer. Of this Mariana is certain. But Fosca is untouchable. A handsome and charismatic Greek tragedy professor at Cambridge University, Fosca is adored by staff and students alike – particularly by the members of a secret society of female students known as The Maidens.
Mariana Andros is a brilliant but troubled group therapist who becomes fixated on The Maidens when one member, a friend of Mariana’s niece Zoe, is found murdered in Cambridge.
Mariana, who was once herself a student at the university, quickly suspects that behind the idyllic beauty of the spires and turrets, and beneath the ancient traditions, lies something sinister. And she becomes convinced that, despite his alibi, Edward Fosca is guilty of the murder. But why would the professor target one of his students? And why does he keep returning to the rites of Persephone, the maiden, and her journey to the underworld?
When another body is found, Mariana’s obsession with proving Fosca’s guilt spirals out of control, threatening to destroy her credibility as well as her closest relationships. But Mariana is determined to stop this killer, even if it costs here everything – including her own life.”
Review: I was so excited to start reading The Maidens when I received their marketing material in the mail. They really hit the nail on the head with their promotions leading up to the release – I received a postcard in the mail with cryptic lettering and a website listed, no further information. Then, upon signing up for the ARC, I received the book and another postcard, again with similar cryptic lettering and an invitation to a Zoom meetup with the author. Following completion of the book, I turned down the group meeting.
The Maidens is billed as a dark academia thriller, and I suspect The Secret History by Donna Tartt played at least some role in the creation of this book. It follows Mariana, the narrator, as she bucks the police and spearheads her own investigation into the double murder of Cambridge students, both of whom belonged to a so-called secret society called The Maidens. This is about as good as the book gets before it delves into the strange, poorly written, and poorly executed book that it became. We’re given a bit of backstory to Mariana’s work as a group therapist and find her crossing boundary lines with patients who are unstable and should have no part in her work as a therapist once they begin to stalk her and threaten her. Perhaps this should be our first red flag that Mariana is not, as the back of the book describes, brilliant, but is rather an unreliable narrator.
We follow Mariana to Cambridge to pursue the investigation into the deaths, the two students who were friends of her niece, nee adopted daughter, Zoe. Mariana, all the while, spends her time not chasing the killer reminiscing on her own time spent at the university where she met her late husband. She waxes poetic about how magical their first encounter was, finding spots all over campus where they’d sat and talked or had this encounter or that. Clearly showing the reader she’s yet to recover from the tragic death of her husband, though there doesn’t seem to be much more to this plot point than that. We proceed through the book knowing there will be a plot twist, as Michaelides sets it up to be quite clearly not a straightforward story. My frustrations begin here, with the understanding that there will be a plot twist: we catch glimpses into who the murderer is through small snippets of what appears to be a letter he is writing, known only to the reader. Based on these small sections of writings, we begin to piece together the back story of the killer and would you believe it, every male character Mariana encounters somehow has the exact same back story?
It’s impossible to follow, given every male character has, somehow, grown up on a farm with volatile parents. Not to mention, they all act quite strangely towards Mariana through the story, each giving off serious murderer vibes as written. When it does finally come time to reveal the actual plot twist, a mere ten pages before the end of the book, it turns out to be someone we didn’t see coming at all. None of these men we’ve met who are set up to be the murderer end up being the murderer (spoilers!) and the actual murderer is a much more convoluted and ridiculous reveal. There’s zero believability to the end of the book.
For the title and all the build up, the time spent on the actual secret society is slim to none. There’s no real creation of the society within this written world, and I left the book feeling deeply disappointed. The pacing was truly strange, the world was bizarre at best, and no part of the book felt like a dark academia thriller. It felt like a thriller on it’s first legs, one who needs multiple revisions to get to a place where I could confidently call it dark academia.
Advice: If you like thrillers, at the very least this book doesn’t follow the standard outline, however it does rely heavily on the unreliable female narrator trope that factors heavily into recent thriller narratives and becomes boring quickly. There are many other true dark academia thrillers out there, of which this does not qualify. Find a different book.