Fourteen-year-old Olivia Prior is missing three things: a mother, a father, and a voice. Her mother vanished all at once, and her father by degrees, and her voice was a thing she never had to start with.
She grew up at Merilance School for Girls. Now, nearing the end of her time there, Olivia receives a letter from an uncle she’s never met, her mother’s older brother, summoning her to his estate, a place called Gallant. But when she arrives, she discovers that the letter she received was several years old. Her uncle is dead. The estate is empty, save for the servants.
Olivia is permitted to remain, but must follow two rules: don’t go out after dusk, and always stay on the right side of a wall that runs along the estate’s western edge. Beyond it is another realm, ancient and magical, which calls to Olivia through her blood…
I love V. E. Schwab’s writing, and her Shades of Magic series in particular. With Gallant, Schwab invites the reader into a world full of shadows and ghosts and a mysterious old house that is more than it seems.
Raised in the Merilance School for Girls, Olivia is alone in the world. She has no friends amongst the other girls at Merilance, and the matrons who run the school pay her little attention. She is the victim of the occasional prank, and yet doesn’t seem to be bullied outright after Olivia retaliated to a previous attempt in spectacular fashion – anyone who’s not a fan of creepy crawlies might want to skip that bit! Of her parents, she knows little. She has her mother’s journal but that raises more questions than it answers, and she has no memory of her family at all.
Olivia is an unusual character in that she does not – and cannot – speak. She is able to communicate non-verbally, although the only matron who bothered to learn sign language soon left, leaving Olivia with a chalkboard which she is expected to carry with her (she doesn’t) and few other options. Olivia’s lack of speech sets her apart from other characters in similar novels – it’s not something I’ve come across before and it makes her a unique protagonist. Schwab also uses this as an opportunity to explore the way in which people who are different in some way may be judged unfairly. Because she cannot speak, many assume Olivia to be slow and / or hard of hearing. She is neither of these things, and becomes understandably frustrated when assumptions are made by people who don’t even try to understand her.
Gallant is a relatively short novel at some 300ish pages, and little of that time is set in Merilance. It does allow us to get to know Olivia, however, and she’s a character that I quickly came to love. She is so mischievous! Sent to bed without dinner one evening, she feels no qualms at raiding the matrons’ room for their supplies of biscuits and other treats that aren’t permitted for girls at the school. She also has a temper and is often quick to react, although smart enough not to get into trouble by retaliating when there is a matron present. The matrons see few options for Olivia’s future – she has the wrong temperament for marriage or servitude which seem to be as much as the girls at Merilance can aspire to. All Olivia wants is a place to call home, somewhere she can be accepted as she is. When a letter arrives from an uncle she didn’t even know existed and inviting her to live at the Prior family home, it seems to resolve everyone’s issues, and Olivia sets off, nervous and excited in equal measure.
Her arrival at Gallant is met with bafflement. Her uncle died over a year ago, and her surly cousin, Matthew, makes it clear that she isn’t welcome at Gallant although he gives no reason as to why that is. Only the servants, Hannah and Edgar, make her feel welcome and inspire some hope that she may be able to stay. Refusing to give up on the possibility that she has found a home, Olivia begins to explore Gallant – a once grand house that is too big for the three (four, including Olivia) who live there. It’s also a house shrouded in mystery, and Olivia very quickly becomes aware of the strange goings on in Gallant. Why can’t she go out after dark, and what lies on the other side of the wall in the garden? Who are the ghosts haunting the halls, and why is it that her cousin objects to her presence so vehemently? With those around her avoiding her questions, she does the only thing she can – seeks the answers herself, causing no small amount of havoc along the way.
Gallant is a brilliant and imaginative novel – part fantasy, part coming-of-age narrative with a wonderful and unusual protagonist. I enjoyed the way in which the narrative develops, giving little away initially and allowing the reader to discover the mysteries of Gallant alongside Olivia. And the book itself is a joy to behold with Olivia’s mother’s journal and its ink drawings rendered beautifully to enhance the narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Gallant was published in March by Titan Books and is available now in hardback, digital, and audio formats.