A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee
Felicity Morrow is back at Dalloway School.
Perched in the Catskill mountains, the centuries-old, ivy-covered campus was home until the tragic death of her girlfriend. Now, after a year away, she’s returned to graduate. She even has her old room in Godwin House, the exclusive dormitory rumored to be haunted by the spirits of five Dalloway students—girls some say were witches. The Dalloway Five all died mysteriously, one after another, right on Godwin grounds.
Witchcraft is woven into Dalloway’s history. The school doesn’t talk about it, but the students do. In secret rooms and shadowy corners, girls convene. And before her girlfriend died, Felicity was drawn to the dark. She’s determined to leave that behind her now; all Felicity wants is to focus on her senior thesis and graduate. But it’s hard when Dalloway’s occult history is everywhere. And when the new girl won’t let her forget.
It’s Ellis Haley’s first year at Dalloway, and she’s already amassed a loyal following. A prodigy novelist at seventeen, Ellis is a so-called “method writer.” She’s eccentric and brilliant, and Felicity can’t shake the pull she feels to her. So when Ellis asks Felicity for help researching the Dalloway Five for her second book, Felicity can’t say no. Given her history with the arcane, Felicity is the perfect resource.
And when history begins to repeat itself, Felicity will have to face the darkness in Dalloway–and in herself.
Felicity Morrow has grieved, and now she is back at Dalloway for her final year.
It will be a quiet year, despite the stares, the whispers. Now that Felicity has processed her girlfriend’s death, she has left all things occult about the school behind. All she must do now is walk the straight and narrow until she graduates. No witchcraft or superstition, and certainly no dwelling on her loss.
But then Ellis Haley upends all of that. Already a best-selling novelist, she aims to write her next book about the Dalloway Five, whose deaths (and supposed lingering prescence) make the school famous. And since she’s living in the very same space as Felicity, the two find themselves caught in one another’s orbit before long.
It’s no simple thing, though. Dalloway has dark corners and darker secrets, and Felicity must face them if she wants to see the year through. Otherwise, she may meet a fate not unlike the Dalloway Five.
This is the dark academia book you’re probably looking for.
It’s sapphic, it’s cloaked in all matter of shadow, and most of all, it’s deeply messed up. Seriously. It’s not even a spoiler to say that this isn’t a happy book. All at once, it hurls Felicity Morrow back into her grief, into her fears, while also presenting this irresistible, dangerous draw in the enigmatic shape of Ellis Haley, the method writer who’s always two steps ahead of everyone else. In some way, A Lesson in Vengeance is like watching a star explode, or a black hole collapse: there’s nothing you can do to stop it, but it’s terribly difficult to look away.
Maybe it’s because there’s something fascinating about characters who make bad choices. There’s a certain flavor of “I can make her worse” to Ellis and Felicity’s relationship, and trying to argue that what they have is healthy is…questionable. That’s the whole point, though. This book isn’t about girls coping well with trauma, or about taking the steps to reach a point of peace in an ocean of grief.
A Lesson in Vengeance is about surviving, no matter the cost. About being the best, the smartest, the most clever of them all, even if it kills you.
Or someone else.
“In this, as in all things, I am alone.”
I think the dividing factor for many readers will be Felicity’s insistence on independence. She treats her depression and grief like some awful, monstrous thing. Like a curse, even. And seeing as her depression is in fact psychotic depression, which can present with symptoms like hallucinations, her frustration makes sense. In only the last year, her entire life has been upended, and she cannot always place her full trust in what she sees, or even recalls. And when she feels as though she no longer needs her medication, she feels a sense of freedom.
Except you know all the while that this is just leading her closer to some sort of agony. I think a few people will read it as some kind of “meds are fake, depression is just a mindset” approach, but taken in the grand scheme of the book, it shows just how lonesome Felicity is, how unwilling she is to let anyone step in and support her.
Moreover, it suits the book as a whole. A Lesson in Vengeance takes place at an elite boarding school with its fair share of privilege involved, particular for rich white girls. It’s not uncommon to see these students come from wealthy backgrounds and act as if they own the grounds, as if they’ve earned their place there rather than buying into it, whether by money or family legacy. There’s a false sense of independence layered over everything, a disconnect from reality that too few of the students see through (or want to admit they’ve seen). It adds to the sheer isolation academia can present, and to the gloomy, reclusive atmosphere vital to dark academia in particular.
A Lesson in Vengeance feels like a fall read, cast over in long autumn shadow.
There’s a chill throughout that’s hard to escape, especially once you see Felicity’s fate approaching, even as her history is still unfolding. Some readers may struggle with the fact that there’s no one particularly likeable in the cast, that the gloom is so completely pervasive.
But here, that’s the point. And it makes for an unsettling read, one that still raises its head to haunt me now and again, a month and some after turning to the last page.
And hey, if I learned anything extra from it? I’m glad I’ve said my goodbyes to academia. It’s a cutthroat world out there indeed.
CW: loss of a loved one, smoking, violence (including gun violence), underage drinking, body horror, gore, alcholoism, suicide, self-harm (ritualistic/magic), animal death, sex scene