Three Twins at the Crater School Review

This week:

  • I love school stories
  • How many twins are there, exactly?
  • This book has weird, fascinating worldbuilding
Three Twins at the Crater School front cover

About Three Twins at the Crater School (2021) by Chaz Brenchley

This is a school story set on Mars.

The blurb:

Mars, the Red Planet, farthest flung outpost of the British Empire.  Under the benevolent reign of the Empress Eternal, commerce and culture are flourishing along the banks of the great canals, and around the shores of the crater lakes.  But this brave new world is not as safe as it might seem.  The Russians, unhappy that Venus has proved far less hospitable, covet Britain’s colony.  And the Martian creatures, while not as intelligent and malevolent as HG Wells had predicted, are certainly dangerous to the unwary.

What, then, of the young girls of the Martian colony?  Their brothers might be sent to Earth for education at Eton and Oxbridge, but girls are made of sterner stuff.  Be it unreasonable parents, Russian spies, or the deadly Martian wildlife, no challenge is beyond the resourceful girls of the Crater School.

Review

If someone had taken note of my very own personal likes in a story and had written a novel just for me, it would probably be this book.

It made my heart glad to read it.

This pressed so many buttons for me:

  • Stories about girls
  • Small-scale, personal stakes
  • Good people doing kind things
  • Mischief
  • Fascinating world-building

Who is this aimed at?

Unlike a lot of the school stories I remember (Enid Blyton, anyone?), this one is just as readable as an adult.

It was complex enough to keep me entertained throughout.  The problems, though personal to the girls, are not trite.

I recently re-read some Malory Towers and it was fun to whizz through but I noticed a few things I was uncomfortable with these days that I didn’t notice as a child.  This article isn’t about that, though, so I’ll move on.

The point is that Three Twins at the Crater School has all the nostalgia of those kinds of books, but in a fresh way that I was captivated by even as an adult.

Why I liked it

There is a range of interesting female characters, from the younger girls who are up to mischief, to the older Levity who is at the school for bigger reasons than just lessons, to the occasional glimpses of the headmistress dealing with pupils, teachers, parents, social pressure and the harsh climate.

It is a classic school story (more on that later).

It has some of the best SFF worldbuilding I’ve come across in a while (more on that later, too).

A classic school story

There are lots of things I think of, when I think of the kind of school stories I read as a child.

One of the most important (and one of the things I longed for in my own school experience and never got) was the sense of community.

Of course, there is a whole discussion to be had about exactly why public schools have such a sense of insular community and school pride, but I don’t want to dig into that here.  What I want to focus on is the sheer joy of this book.

Nostalgic, richly-built and leaning hard into every school-story trope you want!

The Crater School is a tight-knit community

Although there is a sense of the sheer amount of space around them – the large building, the crater itself, the nearby town, the whole of Mars, the moons, the distant Earth – the focus of the story is very narrow: the girls in the school.

It is a small world with very personal, tight-knit community knowledge.  Everyone knows everyone else, and keeping secrets is difficult.  Not that the girls don’t try.

One of my favourite things about Three Twins is the classic trope of school stories: the head girl who knows everything.

“Who’s Rowany?”

The twins stared at her, bug-eyed.  “Only the Head Girl,” Tasha said, gasping.  Didn’t this new kid know anything that mattered?

School hierarchy

That leads me on to the next delightful trope: the rigid school hierarchy.

The rivalry between the Middles and the Juniors is intense and each form is determined to hold their own against the others, older or younger.

A state of permanent war existed as by nature between Lower and Upper Fourth.

The honour of the school and form

The girls of the Crater School are proud of their school and want to show it to best advantage, even when they are struggling with an aspect of it themselves.

I love this trope because I love that type of loyalty (when it is deserved).

What’s interesting about it is that the girls can feel the conflict of that loyalty when it is tested.

There are times when they are torn between loyalty to their family and loyalty to their school.  Neither one is necessarily in the wrong, but the clash of emotions and needs creates some really interesting decisions.

It’s not just the school overall that has the girls’ loyalty – it is their own particular form, whichever year that may be.

Bashful Patience would have declined, surely, if she’d had a true opportunity.  But […] for the honour of the Middles she had to take a turn.  Even she couldn’t yield the game to a gaggle of Juniors without at least a token effort.

Pranks and girls joining together to help each other out

As with most school stories, there comes a time when it becomes Us against Them.  Pupils versus Teachers.

Interestingly, in Three Twins, the teachers and headmistress are given space in the narrative and the reader gets to see their point of view for a while.  It’s one of the reasons that this book works so well for adults, not just children.

At one point (and I’ll try not to give spoilers), the girls begin a campaign to right a perceived wrong and they launch into it en mass.  Even the petty competition between Upper and Lower Fourth is put aside in the face of greater adversary.

An undeclared truce was in place, and even the sniping was minor and perfunctory.  They were all Middles together, after all, and there were greater issues at hand.  The Uppers had joined in the letter-writing with glee, delighted to make war for once with the mistresses instead.

Sneaking out-of-bounds to explore

No school story is complete without the odd pupil sneaking around when she shouldn’t be.

The school is in a castle.  There are secret passages.  Of course the girls find them!

“Don’t you see?” Rachel went on.  “Whatever she meant, your precious Rowany has given you carte blanche to go anywhere, in bounds or out.  And to record it, to map it… This place is a castle, built by an eccentric; it must have secret passages, tunnels, hidden chambers, even beyond the servants’ ways in and out.  And you have permission to hunt them all down.  Don’t you see what an opportunity this is?”

Worldbuilding

I have to say that I was utterly captivated by the worldbuilding in this book.

It wasn’t anything like I expected.  It has much more of a 1950s feel to it, which is not what I expected from a school story set on Mars.

The worldbuilding – both for the place and the society – are much stranger and more fantastical than I anticipated.  Being a lover of Fantasy, though, this was only a positive for me.

A clear sense of place

One of the things I noticed first about Three Twins is the beautiful descriptions of Mars and the crater.

It wasn’t just going to be a story set on Mars which could have been anywhere, a few nods to rockets or different atmosphere and nothing more – this was going to be absolutely grounded in the place it was set.

Those waters might sparkle in sunlight, but they lay as dark as their secrets now, already in the long shadow of the crater wall.  That held the lake in an almost perfect circle, the smooth ring of water making a sharp contrast to the jagged broken rock of the wall rearing above it.

Small details of world-building the society

I particularly loved the worldbuilding of the Martian society.  The Pioneers were part-explorers and part-Girl guides, which was lovely.  The fact that the girls all knew the history of Mars, not just because it was taught to them in lessons, but because it was relevant to them today, because the lessons of their ancestors was what kept the society going and kept the girls alive outside the safety of the school walls.

Tawney spelled it out for Rachel: “We’re never allowed on the path or anywhere outside school grounds unless there are at least three of us.  It’s the old Pioneer rule: one to be hurt, one to stay with her, one to run for help.”

Rachel nodded.  No girl of Mars would ever need such a rule explaining, and it would take a reckless girl indeed to defy it.  She might be miserable without her twin, she might still be determined to hate this school and everything about it – despite any friendly overtures, with or without sweet hot crumbly honey cakes to help them down – but she wasn’t foolish.

A sense of wonder at the world of Mars

This was the moment which changed the whole book for me.

It comes early on, so this shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler.  It was the moment when I realised the author was really going for it and this was going to be just as much Speculative Fiction as it was a School Story.

This is the moment when a merlin emerges from the lake.

Don’t know what a merlin is?  Don’t worry, neither did I.  It’s explained later.  It’s part of the fabric of the worldbuilding.

What I loved particularly was the sense of danger, right outside the school gates.

I loved the fact that there were creatures on Mars that we were going to find out about.

I loved the automatic, ingrained response to seeing one.  Run.  Always run.

She looked out over the lake – and suddenly cried aloud, “Oh, look!  Look there—!”

She was pointing and calling and running all at once, because that was what you did, what you were trained to do.  All your life, from the days you could first remember: boy or girl, farm-raised or city-raised, on the water or far off in the dry, parents and teachers and adults of all kinds taught the same truth.  If you see a merlin come to ground, from water or from the air, point it out and cry the alarm and run.  Run towards it if it’s a nymph, if you have the fingertalk; if not, run away.  If it’s a naiad or an imago, always run away.  But always, always run.

Recommended

If you love school stories and SFF, then this is a pitch-perfect mash-up of the two.

There is a sequel already out, which is on my Christmas list.  Partly because it’s set at Christmas and it would be a wonderful time to spend a few days reading it.

The sequel is called Dust Up at the Crater School (2021) by Chaz Brenchley.

Dust Up at the Crater School front cover

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: