Lilly’s Dad has uprooted her from rural Maine, where she’d lived all her sixteen years. He transplants her to Castello, a walled mountain town in Italy which, he says, has hired him as an engineer to “replace the electrical grid and wire up the internet” and drag the place into the present decade. Her once-loving father has become a stranger to Lilly since the day, six years earlier, when she had found her Mom lying dead by the fireplace at home in Maine. Suicide, Lilly tells us, but her mother remains a frequent visitor in her restless dreams, whispering that Lilly is ‘dangerous, that I ruined the things I touched’.
Lilly’s first day at Scuola Lafolia could hardly be more daunting. She deliberately arrives ‘a respectable half-hour late’. The building, like most of the town, is visibly crumbling, there’s no helpful front office, no sign of life. She’s looking aimlessly about when she suddenly backs into someone – a boy. ‘I felt a pulse of heat where my fingers brushed his wrist like static electricity, making me jerk my hand away in a rush’. The boy seems as physically shocked as she is, but he leads her to a room where she meets her classmates, including those who become the novel’s small cast of main characters – Nico, Liza, Christian and Alex. Her childhood Italian, learned from her mother who grew up in Italy, serves her well enough. These are no casual first encounters, for Lilly experiences a disconcerting, electric spark of attraction towards three of the students… two boys, one girl. She’s known nothing like it before.
No teachers are around but she’s told that this is a ‘testing’ day. Soon, a bunch of uniformed ‘enforcers’, led by the brutal Tiago, take over the classroom. They have come to administer blood-tests to everyone, including Lilly. She quickly learns that the city is torn apart – there are two ferociously opposed ‘clans’, the Paradisos and the Marconis. The publisher’s blurb likens the clans to the mafia, but the enmity between them is medieval in its raw savagery. Peace depends upon the leadership of ‘the General’, whose tactic is ‘to give them something to hate…Something to fear’. He has fostered in the citizens of both factions a fear of witches, people embedded in the community who abuse their supernatural powers. The General preaches that witches must be hunted out and burned. Tiago’s blood-tests are designed to expose the power of any hidden witches.
The intensity of the opening chapters is never relaxed for a moment. Delacorte’s narrative energy – impressive in a debut novel – is as effective in large-scale scenes, such as a public burning, as in a dialogue between Lilly and one of her classmates. There’s magic, violence, corruption, betrayal and jealousy; sudden, urgent sexual attraction is sometimes implicit, sometimes overt. Frequently, Lilly feels alone – there’s no-one she can trust, for even her father seems to be playing a secret game. To her astonishment, she discovers that her mother, before she left for the States, had been at the core of Castello’s explosive history. For Lilly, Castello sometimes becomes a menacing presence, a character in itself.
At one point, close to exhaustion, Lilly finds it all ‘too far-fetched, too impossible’; some readers, confused or overwhelmed by the intensity of the complex plot, might share that view, wishing perhaps for some clearer insight into characters’ motivation. But, as a glance at young reviewers’ reactions on Google reveals, others are entranced by the action, setting and characters, impatient for the promised sequel to complete a duology. Enticing loose ends are left trailing in the closing chapters.