St. Stephen’s Academy, Yorkshire, 1931. A society unto itself, populated by boys reveling in life’s first big mistakes and men still learning how to live with the consequences of their own. They live a cloistered life, exotic to modern eyes, founded upon privilege and duty, ruled by byzantine and often unspoken laws, haunted by injuries both casual and calculated. Yet within those austere corridors can be found windows of enchantment, unruly love, and a wild sort of freedom, all vanished, it seems, from our time.

Fourteen-year-old Gray Riding—bookish and yearning for approval—filters life through the eyes of the character he has created, one Valarious, knight-in-training, a hero more bold and glamorous than he. Riding’s course is altered by the arrival at the Academy of Cordelia Líoht, the vivacious goddaughter of his Housemaster, John Grieves, nicknamed Grievous. Grieves, too, is at a crossroads, forced to grapple with history both collective and personal as he manages difficult students, a precocious goddaughter, and the infinitely more difficult task of rescuing Cordelia's mother, the woman he secretly loves, from poor health and worse decisions.

Told from a variety of viewpoints, Grievous takes us inside the crucible of St. Stephen’s while retaining a clear-eyed, contemporary sensibility, drawing out the urges and mercies hidden beneath the school’s unsparing surface. The Academy’s codes may seem antique, but even when the characters travel beyond its walls—from the streets of London and Paris, to the marshes of Kent and the spas of Europe—they hear its homing call, and can't help but feel that its society and its trials are more vital than any others they will come to know.

In brisk, witty, glittering prose reminiscent of the novels of Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett, or Vladimir Nabokov, H. S. Cross here explores “a school as nuanced and secretive as J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts” (The Rumpus) in this return to the world of her acclaimed coming-of-age novel Wilberforce.


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Kirkus starred review

This is a sequel to the U.S. writer’s immersive debut about a British boarding school in the 1920s and shows her quirks and craft deployed to better effect

Five years after the upheaval depicted in Wilberforce (2015), life at St. Stephen’s Academy has returned to its version of normalcy. That is to say, its public school boys talk a strange slang while enduring bullying, caning, and countless other rituals: “What was to be worn when and how, who could be addressed and in what manner.” The story chronicles the period of March to December 1931, and it’s a busy tale that flits among a large cast linked by complicated ties of blood, friendship, or animosity.

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Booklist - starred review

Cross returns to public boys school St. Stephens Academy in Yorkshire, the setting of her first novel, Wilberforce (2015). The year is now 1931, and, though the book offers the points of view of 11 different characters, the two principals are John Grieves (nicknamed Grievous), who teaches history at the academy and is the housemaster of Thomas Gray "Brains" Riding, a bright, introspective 14-year-old with a gift for writing. John is desperately in love with Meg, a married woman, while Gray loves her daughter, Cordelia, who is John’s goddaughter. Meg emerges as another of the principal characters, as does the headmaster, Jamie, a lifelong friend of John’s. John serves in loco parentis to Gray, whose father is dead, but their relationship is often fraught, thanks to Gray’s misadventures and disobedience. The world of the school is vividly evoked, as are the lives of secondary characters. Nevertheless, Cross doesn’t cut her readers any slack; her novel is often maddeningly opaque. What, for example, is the precise nature of the relationship between John and Jamie? What happened between one of the prefects, Moss, and the eponymous Wilberforce, who makes a brief encore appearance? Still, the novel is beautifully written, a tour de force of psychological insight into its richly realized characters, and an extraordinary exercise in mood, tone, and characterization. It is not to be missed.

— Michael Cart

YA: Older teens who enjoy literary fiction and British boarding-school novels won't want to miss this one. It will also delight fans of David Mitchell. MC.

Publishers Weekly

Cross (Wilberforce) tells the story of John Grieves and his charge, young Gray Riding, in this rich novel. Grieves—nicknamed Grievous—is a housemaster at St. Stephen’s Academy in 1931 Yorkshire who watches Gray’s struggles through adolescence. At 14, Gray is an exceptionally intelligent student who has been moved ahead in school and is younger than the other boys in his class; his creativity emerges in a fantasy book he works on to help him through prep school. During the three terms that Gray is in the “Remove,” the year before entering the “Upper School,” he engages in adventures with his friends, and also experiences and witnesses abusive corporal punishment. Gray even finds young love in Grieves’s 13-year-old goddaughter, Cordelia. As housemaster, Grieves can’t replace Gray’s dead father, but he can attempt to understand the battles of youth in an old-fashioned school filled with adolescent boys, whose personalities range from emotional to athletic and from friendly to bullying. Although elements of the writing style (disjointed dialogue and slang) may require some patience from the reader, the complex characters lend an intriguing poignancy to this tale.

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The Other Stories podcast with Ilana Masad

H. S. Cross reads an excerpt from Grievous and then talks with Ilana Masad about craft and the path to publishing.

Listen

Radio interview with Larry Matthews

H. S. Cross speaks with Larry Matthews about the world of Grievous, English boarding schools, history, and writing with em-dashes.

Interview begins at the 33:30 mark. Listen.

© H. S. Cross