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At St. Stephen's Academy, the students are on the verge of revolt. While the younger boys plot an insurrection, the older ones are preoccupied with sneaking out-of-bounds, thrashing each other, tearing each other's clothes off-or some combination of the three. Morgan Wilberforce, for one, can't take it any longer.

Everything Wilberforce touches turns to disaster in his desperate attempts to fight off desire, boredom, and angst. He knocks himself unconscious tackling the unattainable Spaulding on the rugby pitch, his headmaster detests him for crimes committed years ago, and even his closest friends are subjecting him to physical tortures normally reserved for juniors. When an accident at the boarding school leaves him with more suffering than he could have fathomed, he finds himself alone and adrift. And the workaday charms of cricket practice, Victorian pornography, canings from classmates, and fumbling with the pub-keeper's daughter can only do so much to mend a broken body and a restless heart.

Stylishly inventive, H. S. Cross has crafted an imaginative, ritualistic world of men and boys narrowly confined by tradition and authority. Wilberforce is an indelible portrait of a young man caught between lust and cruelty, grief and God, frustrated love and abject longing-and a tour de force that heralds the arrival of a brilliant new novelist.


Reviews

Karl Wolff, New York Journal of Books

H. S. Cross has created a lived-in world with a variety of memorable characters. While the terms “achingly poignant” and “exquisitely crafted” have become book reviewer boilerplate, repeated to the point of meaninglessness, Cross writes with a beautiful precision. Her depiction of inner emotional turmoil inside Morgan Wilberforce's head could be among the best anywhere. The author crafts passages of agonizing psychological self-torment with a master's ear for the perfect phrase.

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Jen Baker, Booklist

Morgan Wilberforce embodies all that is objectionable in the British public-school system in the early twentieth century. The Great War has just ended, Morgan's mother is dead, his father has turned milquetoast, and his chums are as callous and crass as ever. Despite Morgan's basic decency, an increasing propensity for rule breaking, an obsession with sex, and a troubling recklessness gradually force Wilberforce to recognize his own personality crisis. This lengthy, contemplative, coming-of-age journey leisurely wends along until about two-thirds through the book, when we meet the Bishop-an incredibly perceptive, kind, and godly man-who helps Wilberforce onto the path toward social and spiritual redemption, heightening the pace of the story in the process. First in a planned series set in a Yorkshire boys' academy, this literary, character-driven debut novel requires careful reading but rewards with its psychological insight and dry humor, leaving the reader longing for all that is good, peaceful, and hopeful. For Anglophiles, seekers, and those who enjoy the insular world of C. P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers novels and the haunting power of Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending.

Steve Donohue, Best Fiction Debuts 2015

I’m convinced the author is playing a much, much deeper game than I at first guessed. I can’t wait for her next book set in this world she’s created.

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Heather Partington, The Rumpus

Cross, an American, writes a school as nuanced and secretive as J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts, yet the parallel to Rowling’s work ends at basic comparisons of scenery. Cross brings a contemporary sensibility to her novel of Morgan Wilberforce’s fraught development . . . Cross’ sure understanding of character allows us to see how grief at an early age can alter and overwhelm development.

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Jenny Shank, Mystery at Work

Cross’s rich gifts as a writer are evident on every page. She has thoroughly researched and inhabited this world, down to its slang, rituals, and historical atmosphere. Saint Stephen’s feels completely authentic, and every word choice is apt.

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Patrick Sullivan, Library Journal

Set at St. Stephen's Academy in 1926 England, this ambitious and accomplished debut is part historical, part bildungsroman, part psychological study, and part English boarding-school novel . . . Cross effectively captures the debilitating confusion and angst that can attend the difficult passage to adulthood . . . readers feel viscerally the protagonist's panic and confusion as he attempts to engage an adult world he doesn't understand fully. VERDICT This convincingly handled work is recommended for all fans of coming-of-age novels.

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Kirkus

Cross has made a solid start for continued exploration of this strange yet for many readers familiar world, one that might well capture a libidinous P.G. Wodehouse crowd.

Silk began to tell Morgan the story of the poacher's tunnel . . .

how an old boy named Hermes had discovered it . . .

how he had passed the secret to his fag . . .

Silk was the seventh guardian.

Morgan would shortly become the eighth.

© H. S. Cross