REVIEW | Plain Bad Heroines | Emily M. Danforth

That version, as with so many of the stories we tell about our history, erased a woman- a plain, bad heroine- in favor of a less messy and more palatable yarn about two feuding brothers from New England.

This horror thriller set in a boarding school with dual timelines was a highly anticipated release of mine, so I was so excited to get one of the gorgeous ARCs. I adored this book and I can’t believe it’s finally out in the UK next week! If you like sapphics, twisting storylines and creepy horror, be sure to pick this one up!

Rating: 5 stars!

Thanks to The Borough Press for the ARC of this book. It has not affected my honest review.

Trigger Warnings: death, animal attack, gaslighting, murder, attempted sexual assault, curses, unwanted pregnancy, manipulative behaviour, drowning.

About the book:

Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, The Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way.

Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded-Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.

What did I think?

I had high, high expectations for this book, which is usually a risk because I’m setting myself up for let down. Somehow this book side stepped every single thing I expected it to be, and still managed to be better than I had hoped. It’s a thick book with two timelines running parallel and while it could have been difficult to follow it was instead perfectly threaded so that I could always keep track. Not that I’m saying for a second that I understood what was going on – I spent most of my reading time spinning too rapidly from fear to confusion to fear again to be able to keep track of what I suspected was happening.

Plain Bad Heroines was my favourite kind of gothic horror. Not overtly jumpscary or gory, instead it created a pervasive kind of fear that left me unable to exactly pinpoint why my heart was racing. Though admittedly it didn’t help that I was plagued by very characteristic horrors while reading – a buzzing sound behind my head while I was in the bath and a truly nightmarish moment where I was reading and all the power cut, plunging me into pitch black darkness. Yes, I screamed like a baby. When it came to the gothic elements, this was pitch perfect. The yellow jackets were so, so unnerving as a repeated theme, showing up unexpectedly and always in a horrible, horrible way. The setting, an old school and a house with a spindly tower named Spite Tower, is mysterious and eerie even when things aren’t going awry and the whole thing was underwritten with the disconcerting feeling of, even as the reader, not knowing what was true and what wasn’t. The book fools you into thinking something might be a trick, then makes it seem entirely impossible, and it leaves you feeling uncertain and worried for the characters that you’ve come to love.

The characters in the past timeline felt doomed from the start, after all we know that Brookhants has a reputation for a reason, but that didn’t stop me wanting more for them. When the present day sections alluded to the tragedies that befall characters we know, my heart leapt into my throat. But it was the present day characters; Harper, Audrey and Merritt, that in my opinion are the stars of the book. Watching them develop from strangers into a new Plain Bad Heroines society made me equal parts excited and jealous. I’m not usually a huge fan of poly romances, mostly because I don’t read romance and I find they’re often less developed as side plots in a SFF or horror story but the romance arc in this book was perfection. I wasn’t expecting it, so when I found myself hoping for a poly romance I was ready to be disappointed. But I wasn’t. It wasn’t at all the main focus of the book but it was developed naturally and beautifully and left me with a very strong desire to go and read so much fanfiction about our modern day heroines.

The horror was there, uncertain and undescribed and absolutely under my skin, but equally I loved every part of this book with a strong sense of joy. I loved the characters, I loved the story. This book is full of sapphic women who have been pushed around and defined by heteronormative expectations carving out their own space in the world. Plain Bad Heroines was, in equal measures, empowering and frightening. I think the inherent queerness in this book and its characters made it addictive to me, watching queer women coming together and forming the kind of intense bonds that I know myself from gravitating towards other LGBT+ people even unintentionally. I can’t wait to reread this one the first chance I get, because I already know that there’s going to be more depth than I could possible have noticed the first time, too busy being scared of the yellow jackets.

Goodreads | Hive | Waterstones | Amazon | Book Depository
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Release Date: March 4th 2021

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