This is a book of inexplicable things. I don't necessarily say that in a great way so much as in a kind of hand-wringing, what-even, why-would-that-exist kind of way. I went back and forth trying to figure out if this book took place in some other country, some other culture, that would have a school that operated like this with about five teachers who teach loosely at best, a dean, and a reputation of children trying to flee before they're even officially enrolled. It comes off as a parody of the notorious misery of English boarding schools documented in more children's books than can be counted, except the book tries to take it seriously, sitting it next to characters physically abused by parents and feelings of genuine abandonment.
A lot of the book contradicts itself in that way. The tone feels like it's trying to be serious, and the writing itself is crafted enough not to feel like I'm detached from the story, but in the middle of that there's this school. In the middle of that is the obviously evil Tuffman who I guessed the secret from in one of the very first scenes he had while Raul spends a majority of the book trying to figure it out. It causes the mystery to feel less like a mystery and more like a pantomime, watching characters stumble cluelessly on stage while the reader calls out "He's behind you!" except without the humor. The tension is built not out of a plot crafted but because I know what's going to happen damnit and I have to now wait around for the characters to figure it out so they can do something about it. I understand that there is a fantasy element to this book, but it's not done whimsically enough that it all fits together. I'm not even saying that this can't be done, I'm just saying it wasn't. There are plenty of books I love and enjoy that managed to overlay a serious tone in a humorous book. But this book feels like a serious book that has some weird things spliced into it.
The characters also follow suit in how general one-dimensional they feel, which comes across the strongest in Mary Ann, who wanders the pages of the book like a Roomba programmed to spout French words and phrases and talk about the book she's writing. She's reduced by Raul's obsession with her, as female characters tend to be when the center of a male character's attention in a dully heteronormative novel for kids but she actually rarely does anything to demonstrate that she's more than that. The Hermione-esque aura she exudes is cut off by her inability to provide anything to the plot or the characters beyond jealousy and squishy feelings. Attaching the words "pretty and smart" to her every time she appears just isn't enough to make me like her, it never has. Especially considering that's such a standard archetype that she'd probably be more interesting if she was unattractive and bad at classes. Plus, isn't it great that she gets to stand out as the only female student character in this book.
Arguably the most rounded secondary character, Vincent, comes off a little exaggerated as well. He has no middle ground, and there comes to be a point where his motivations exceed understanding. Why, why, why does he end up in cahoots with Tuffman, the man who humiliates him? Is it through misunderstandings? Is it mentioned that Tuffman uses his name (a plotpoint thrown into the book randomly and thus creating massive plotholes regarding names)? If so, wouldn't that make Vincent more understandable? He also mentions and is clear about the fact that he's rarely had friends before - he is supposed to accept Raul's endless secrets from him, but Raul can't accept Vincent's desperation despite repeatedly seeing it in himself? Vincent rarely apologizes for his actions, but then you could say the same about Raul. We get to feel Raul's apologies because we are Raul, but we're supposed to take Vincent's as absent. And though Vincent's past involves near-murder I'm inclined to think that such a mistake (regarding the matches) would be the perfect trauma storm to provoke compulsive lying in a young child, but that sympathy is not extended to him. Which I would feel fine with if it was just Raul giving off that impression, but the narrative itself isn't understanding to Vincent either. Vincent is just another character pushed to absurd extremes in a tame book, and had me making confused faces throughout. Was it supposed to be connected to his ravenness? Even that doesn't connect well.
Also for the most part I have to say my lip kind of curls at the general blanket "Native American folklore" vibe that this book gives off, which is not attributed with any specificity (which, great, awesome, because that's not a perpetual issue of NA representation in literature) except for once sentence in the depths of the book. All other times the nods are vague at best and at times straight up infuriating considering the lack of defined Native American characters in the book at all. If someone in the book is indeed supposed to come off as Native American I would then have to say it was poorly done, especially because I was reading the book desperately hoping someone would be and even then I caught little to no references. And if it was supposed to be subtle, then it contrasts with how much of this book was anything but subtle. And I'd be lying if I didn't say that wasn't a factor in me having picked up the book in the first place, as one of my priorities regarding books this year is to focus on books with Native American themes/characters/authors because there are so precious precious few of them, but this isn't a great addition to it, if at all.