Authors Laura J. Burns and Melinsa Metz have delivered an intriguing premise in their YA novel Sanctuary Bay, where nothing is as it seems and our leading lady Sarah Merson must battle known forces to help save her friend
When Sarah Merson receives the opportunity of a lifetime to attend the most elite prep school in the country-Sanctuary Bay Academy- it seems almost too good to be true. But, after years of bouncing from foster home to foster home, escaping to it’s tranquil setting, nestled deep in Swans Island, couldn’t sound more appealing. Swiftly thrown into a world of privilege and secrets, Sarah quickly realizes finding herself noticed by class charmer, Nate, as well as her roommate’s dangerously attentive boyfriend, Ethan, are the least of her worries. When her roommate suddenly goes missing, she finds herself in a race against time, not only to find her, but to save herself and discover the dark truth behind Sanctuary Bay’s glossy reputation.
And this is all I’m going to say because the book thrives on its mystery.
There’s an aspect of this book, the diversity, that I absolutely found fantastic to read, even if it seems arbitrary to some, which was in the book something that wasn’t just assumed but directly mentioned. This isn’t something that is often explicitly stated in books for Young Adult readers (of course with exceptions such as the excellent Eleanor & Park) and instead fans are left to to place their own imagery on details such as Katniss and Hermione as media’s default assumption is that the character is white.
Burns and Metz allow no such thing to take place and instead they pointedly make sure we all know. Even in one of the odder moments of the book where Sarah and her group of friends attend a orientation party that doubles largely as some sort of orgy there’s a noted accepting nature of fluid sexuality which, again, while not revolutionary across all media is a nice touch. While on the topic of accepting people however, there is a very flippant and almost mean spirited throw away line about a girl with an eating disorder that was jarring because of the rest of the books tone.
Sarah herself as character is both intriguing and frustrating. On the one hand, I appreciate the rags to riches storyline and her dismissal of all things wealth and privilege was a breath of fresh air, especially as she found herself in a community that was built on those two very things. She’s tough but not impervious to others judgement-she’s a typical teenage girl who is curious and loving and looking for friends to bond with while also being the brave heroine of the book. On the other hand the character also is written to mold to the situation which at times lends her to being suspiciously naive, easily manipulated and hive minded. All of this contradicts with the character we meet in the first 50 pages or so.
Luckily the book has some rich supporting characters that help make the world a little bigger, even if characters such as Ethan are hard to decipher if they’re meant to be annoying or charming at the start. Katrina and Ivy make for a dynamic duo as Sarah’s roommates
The mystery itself is a tad baffling as it draws from multiple genre tropes, especially thriller and almost ghost story elements while also trying to infuse the story with romance. There’s a lot going on which makes the decision to spend 200 pages world building perplexing when the time could have been better spent setting up the main mystery. The book would have done well if there had been a larger, drawn out lead up to the catalyst of the storyline, setting up more moments for Sarah to think “something’s wrong with the situation”.
It’s a book of a lot of strong and interesting ideas, something that works well with the YA/thriller genre. The writing is strong and intriguing and the characters are well drawn even if it takes too long to do so. With science fiction influences, historical fantasy touches and steamy romance, even if this wasn’t pitch perfect, there’s enough going on to keep readers actively engaged.