Title: Sanctuary Bay
Authors: Laura J. Burns & Melinda Metz
Length: 314 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★
Sarah Merton can hardly believe it when she finally escapes the foster system at sixteen to attend a prestigious New England prep school. Though she never applied, she suddenly finds herself living on a remote island off the coast of Maine attending school with the children of actors, politicians, and CEOs. She makes real friends for the first time, and despite feeling resentful of the wealth and privilege enjoyed by her fellow students, begins to think of Sanctuary Bay Academy as home. Before long, however, Sarah realizes that something isn’t quite right, but isolated from the outside world, she has no idea what to do about it.
The first half of Sanctuary Bay was a pleasant surprise to me. It has two authors, but they must work well together, because the prose flows quite nicely throughout. I’m a sucker for boarding school stories anyway, so throw in a coastal New England setting, and I had to give this one a shot.
It’s YA, but only just. There’s a lot of language, sexual content, and violence throughout. The sexual stuff was superfluous, more filler than anything; the rest didn’t bother me much. Unlike the last few “thrillers” I’ve read, this one was suspenseful and genuinely scary. At least up until the last thirty pages.
First things first: the characters were…okay. Since Sanctuary Bay is driven by mystery and intrigue more than anything, the characters’ faults can be more or less overlooked.
The MC, Sarah, has a serious chip on her shoulder. I wish authors (YA and oherwise) would get tired of the jaded-poor-girl-raised-in-the-System trope already, because I’m tired of it. As someone who went to an expensive private college on scholarships and a lot of loans, I can understand the grudge Sarah has against some of her more affluent classmates. Nevertheless, her judgmental and dismissive attitude got old fast. And for a girl supposedly wary of everything and everyone, she gets sucked into the school
cult secret society way too easily. The only really neat or memorable thing about Sarah is her photographic memory. That, of course, was necessary to the plot more than to Sarah’s character. Several key moments later in the novel wouldn’t work if not for this ability.
Besides being the poor new girl, she’s also becomes part of not one but two love triangles. These aren’t as bad or as overwrought as in many YA novels, but they still made me want to roll my eyes.
The rest of the characters are merely serviceable: Sarah’s roommates, Karina, the perky and eclectic “Sweetheart of Sanctuary Bay”; and Izzy, the pretty blonde mean girl; Karina’s boyfriend Ethan, the edgy Bad Boy who’s obsessed with escaping the island; and Nate, the preppy class president with a thing for Sarah. Etcetera. Only the chemistry teacher, Dr. Diaz, felt like much of a personality.
The setting was great: eerie, isolated, and of course hauntingly beautiful.
More details came into focus. She could see the trees, and among them…
She could just make out a brick building almost hidden in the tree line. It obviously used to be fancy, but now sat in disrepair with a crumbling roof and walls smattered with holes where bricks had fallen out, making it look like a smile with missing teeth.
“That’s the Academy?” she asked, keeping her voice steady so she didn’t betray her unease. …
“The school’s on the other side of the island. You can’t see it yet. It’s nothing like that. … That’s just some old ruin left over from before the Academy was here. You can hardly see it from our side.”
The boat powered up to a long jetty made of large flat stones stacked on top of one another and glided to a stop. The hatch slid up and the world exploded into color again. The rich gold of the setting sun turned the perfectly fluffy clouds orange, amber, and pink. The sea held dozens of shades of blue. The stones of the jetty had appeared gray, but now that Sarah could see them without the barrier of smoked glass, she realized they were actually subtle shades of charcoal, lavender, purple, sand, tan, and even a dusty rose. (15-16)
The idyllic, posh Academy is built over-top of an old POW camp, and there’s an abandoned insane asylum (I can’t escape them, people!) on the other side of the island.
Yeah, the island’s history accompanied by the fact that students are forbidden to leave the island or even to communicate with the outside world until they graduate raised some serious red flags from the beginning. Of course, that very “immersion” policy prevented Sarah–wary or not–from doing anything about her suspicions.
The setting, and the appropriately unsettling (though rushed and underdeveloped) “Wolfpack” society that Sarah joins, which throws wild parties and rituals fed by mildly hallucinogenic drugs, made for a compelling beginning. After one such ritual, Sarah believes that one of her friends has died. Certainly, she’s missing, but no one besides Sarah and Ethan seem very concerned.
I can’t say that the novel went downhill from there. Its tone remains creepy as Sarah, Ethan, and Dr. Diaz team up to uncover the school’s dark secrets, but the first one they discover changes the whole nature of the story.
The first half of Sanctuary Bay reminds me a bit of Twin Peaks: atmospheric, mysterious, and slightly foreboding at times, but nonetheless entertaining, even fun. The second half is more X-Files: twisty, bleak, and terrifying, full of inhumane experiments and government conspiracies. That’s not to say that the second half was bad–rushed, but not bad–but it did throw me for a loop. In some ways, I felt like I was suddenly reading a different book. It kept me turning pages, that’s for sure.
But the final thirty pages are so are what did the book in. There’s an absurd moment when the till-then-unknown villain comes out of the woodwork and smugly explains to Sarah and Ethan all of the details of what’s happening at Sanctuary Bay. It was a cheap narrative trick, much worse than Sarah’s perfect memory, and it took me completely out of the story. If not for that, I might have given the novel 3.5 stars. It was that ridiculous, villainous monologue that–more than any other single thing–made the plot feel so slapdash. With all the details gathered in one place like that, it all became quite implausible to me.
Then again, I always liked the Monster of the Week episodes The X-Files a lot better than the mythology/conspiracy episodes. Maybe other people bought it all and loved it. More power to them.
One last complaint: there are a lot of current pop-culture references in here. I know most YA isn’t meant to be timeless literature, but nothing dates your book like pop-culture references (though at least this one wasn’t referencing another YA novel). In ten years–heck, five years–they won’t make a whole lot of sense. Just say no to them, YA authors!
Sanctuary Bay was well-written and interesting enough (even with the sloppy ending) that I would consider reading a sequel.