The War at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks: B

Juniper, nicknamed Jun, is especially driven for a thirteen-year-old. She’s determined to become a doctor, and to accomplish her goal, seeks out the school with the best reputation for getting its students into esteemed universities. Her search leads her to Ellsmere Academy, a distinguished institution with 200 years of history and a high price tag. Her single mother can’t afford the tuition, but Jun’s brains enable her to win a scholarship to attend.

Once there, Jun makes friends with her eccentric roommate, Cassie, and quickly earns the enmity of Emily, a cruel classmate who picks on the other students while excelling academically. Jun and Emily clash a few times, the incidents escalating to the point where each girl faces expulsion, and ultimately learn the truth about one of the school’s oldest legends.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of The War at Ellsmere is how much it reminds one of other things. You’ve got the dark-haired, bespectacled protagonist entering a castle-like boarding school environment peopled mostly by the progeny of families of long standing. The protagonist makes friends with a red-haired and freckled classmate who is smarter than it initially appears and who is continually taunted by the bully of the class and said bully’s two loyal minions. There’s also a spooky forest nearby that, as the stories go, houses supernatural creatures. Sound familiar? Too, the idea of the daughter of a single mother earning a place at a ritzy private school only to encounter a mean yet brilliant adversary is straight out of Gilmore Girls.

On the positive side, Jun is a likable character with believable flaws. She’s smart, but occasionally boastful about her own intellect, and unhesitatingly defends Cassie from Emily’s verbal abuse. When the difficulty of the coursework at Ellsmere catches her by surprise, Jun is challenged to exert more effort in order to succeed. She also inspires Cassie, previously content with her poor grades, to work harder and to achieve some distinction as a writer. It’s very nice to read a story presumably aimed for teenage girls that has nothing to do with romance, and instead features a solid female friendship and a protagonist who places a high priority on learning.

There are quite a few plot threads going on simultaneously, but Hicks handles them skillfully. Because Cassie has discovered a talent for writing, for example, it makes sense that Jun would give her a tape recorder for Christmas. It didn’t even occur to me that the recorder would figure in to the big climactic moment of the story, but it does. The backgrounds of Jun and Cassie are explored a bit, and each even undergoes some character growth by the conclusion, which is impressive when one considers the brevity of the book and how it also contends with schoolwork, fitting in, bullying, and a supernatural mystery.

The art in The War at Ellsmere takes a bit of getting used to. At first, I found it rather unattractive, and Cassie’s design—with her snub nose, freckles, and large eyes—reminded me of something out of The Ren and Stimpy Show. After a time, though, I grew accustomed to it. Lines are thick and chunks of solid black abound, but it’s still very easy to tell what’s going on and there is an admirable range in the characters’ facial expressions, as well.

On the whole, I enjoyed The War at Ellsmere. I’m not sure where the story could go from here, but I for one would love to read more featuring these characters and this setting.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

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