Samantha Threadneedle is yearning for change. Having been abandoned as an infant at the steps of the exclusive Three Dragons Academy, she’s grown up in academia, it’s the center of her world. After briefly leaving Dragons to pursue her teaching degrees, she returned to become the chairperson of the school’s math department. She’s firmly in the closet as the school’s board and donors are still closely aligned with the institution’s original charter dating back to the 1800s. Dragons is very rich, very white, and very straight. Sam has successfully fought for the inclusion of a handful of queer students, and until recently that was enough. But three months ago, at a conference in New York, Sam spent the night with a woman who took her breath away and transformed her.
With Three Dragons Academy on the brink of bankruptcy, Magdalene Nox is hired by the Board of Directors to radically overhaul everything about the crumbling institution. Nox’s reputation precedes her. Her status as a ruthless reformer who puts efficiency above all else has the staff at Dragons in a panic. Their greatest fear is that the new headmistress will turn the school into a lifeless husk of its former self.
When Magdalene arrives, the teachers are shocked by her initial changes, but nobody is more shocked than Sam. The imposing educator making her coworkers shake in their shoes is the same woman who’d shared her bed in New York. Sam doesn’t know if she should laugh or cry.
Sam finds herself as the spokesperson for the teachers, and they’re expecting her to stand up to every change Magdalene intends on making. Sam’s first impulse is to do just that. With every amendment Magdalene makes to the catalogue of courses or line item she deletes from the budget; Sam is there to challenge her. Magdalene is imposing, but as her verbal sparring with Sam intensifies, her frosty demeanor begins to evaporate. For the first time in Magdalene’s life, someone sees who she is at her core.
Despite their confrontational relationship, Sam and Magdalene begin to grow closer. Sam begins to believe Magdalene may have the schools’ best interest at heart, that her changes might be what the institution needs, and her care for the students is genuine.
When Sam and Magdalene begin working in tandem, strange events start occurring at Dragons. With each suspicious happening, it becomes clear that someone is being targeted. Is that someone Sam? Is it Magdalene? How far will this anonymous villain go to sabotage Dragons, and will Sam and Magdalene’s budding relationship end in ruins?
Pros And My Favourite Parts
Victoria: Sam and Magdalene are marvelous characters. While they’re dissimilar in how they present themselves to the world around them, they share a loneliness at their core which binds them to each other. Sam is more than the earnest, likeable math teacher who everyone depends on. She can be a stubborn firebrand who’s willing to go toe-to-toe with the woman she perceives as a threat to all that she loves. They don’t call her the Fourth Dragon for no reason. Her love gives Magdalene a safe space from which she can complete the task of making fundamental changes to secure a future for Three Dragons Academy. I’m not a fan of the conventional Ice Queen. There’s nothing orthodox about Magdalene Nox. She knows how to make her adversaries cower, but she’s just as comfortable nurturing the teenage girls in her care and seeking out her lover for tender reassurances. I think I was so drawn to these main characters because they both have trauma in their pasts, and they are unflinching in their determination to overcome it.
Tara: Victoria, I couldn’t agree more. Although they have different upbringings, they have shared stories of loneliness, of never quite fitting in, and of forging a path for themselves anyway. Although the impact of their loneliness and trauma manifests differently in them, with Magdalene becoming an ice queen and Sam very much not, I appreciate that because they end up complementing each other all the better.
Also, I adore reading about ice queens and the women who thaw them, so I especially squeed whenever Magdalene makes an emotional concession to Sam, despite her better judgment. Magdalene understands all too well what it could mean for them to be open about their relationship and the risks couldn’t be higher, given the trustees’ plans to return Dragons to its puritanical roots. This factor ratcheted up the tension and made me all the more invested in Sam and Magdalene’s path towards happily ever after.
I also loved how the school’s cat, Willoughby, played into the story. He’s the grumpiest cat ever and Magdalene doesn’t want to keep him at first. AND YET, Magdalene and Willoughby form the most adorable bond. It’s like they’re both ice queens and I delighted in seeing them fall for each other. I’m not always the biggest fan of pets in stories, but I was here for Willoughby and his true love with Magdalene.
Victoria: The writing is gorgeous. It’s lush and descriptive on an emotional level. I highlighted so many passages simply because I enjoyed rereading them to savor each word. McKay executes fantastic world building in The Headmistress turning Three Dragons Academy into a character as important as Sam and Magdalene. The dialogue is nuanced. Sam and Magdalene are complex women, and it’s reflected in how they communicate. One of my favorite things about the story is that when the romance arrives at what would traditionally be its natural conclusion, there’s more to be revealed. I think McKay loves storytelling so much, she’s compelled to add something extra for her readers. I’m a greedy little thing so this is exactly what I like.
*pulls it together*
Yes, exactly, Victoria. There’s something almost entrancing about the writing in this book, with the kind of indescribable “it” factor that’s caused me to read it a couple of times already. I remember that the first time I read The Headmistress, I had such a hard time putting it down that I stayed up WAY past my bedtime three nights in a row.
And, oh my goodness, the twist!!! Truly, I was gobsmacked by it, because it’s so brilliant. When I read it again, I could see little hints along the way that I had completely missed the first time around. It adds a whole other dimension to a story that’s already perfect.
Victoria: It wouldn’t be a well-rounded review without mentioning the spice in the book. It is steamy. The sexy bits are as gorgeous as the world building. I caught myself overheating on several occasions.
Tara: Again, I couldn’t agree more. While I think it was especially brilliant to bring their New York City encounter in through flashbacks, their first sex scene in the present day? That’s one of the hotter scenes I’ve read in a long time.
On a different note, the narration for this book was spectacular. Abby Crayden knocked it out of the park again, differentiating all the roles beautifully and truly bringing The Headmistress to life.
Cons And Heads Up
Victoria: Not one thing.
Tara: No cons from me.
Some people may not like the power imbalance, because Sam reports directly to Magdalene, but that worked fine for me because the whole story is told from Sam’s perspective. We know exactly how willing a participant she is in their relationship, both romantically and sexually. I saw no lack of agency on her part whatsoever and was rooting for them all the way.
Victoria: McKay’s first book knocked my socks off, so I’d been anticipating The Headmistress for some time. Needless to say, she didn’t let me down. I reveled in the gorgeous prose and fell a little bit in love with both Sam and Magdalene – okay, more so with Magdalene. The book offers up a world that’s heightened and a bit more magical than most contemporary romances. I got to meander through the corridors of Three Dragons Academy and walk the Dragon Cliffs. I got to observe a love story that’s deeply layered and full bodied, and it touched me deeply. There’s nothing better than getting lost in a book, watching morning turn to night with each turn of the page. The Headmistress made for an enchanting companion. I always feel a bit sad when a book like this comes to an end, but I have high hopes that I’ll be getting many more offerings from McKay. I love sharing titles that leave a lasting impression on me, and I surely think you’ll enjoy this one too.
Tara: So, I came at this a little differently than you, Victoria, because The Headmistress is the first book I’ve read by this author. However, it immediately turned me into a megafan because I loved it so much and now I’m happily listening to her first book.
There’s something so special about The Headmistress and its leads that means I’ll be coming back to it again and again. And the narration is so fantastic that I especially recommend it in that format. My only advice is to clear your calendar when you pick up The Headmistress, because you will want to do nothing else as soon as you start reading it.
Excerpt from The Headmistress by Milena McKay
Right there, in the massive oaken doors to the Mess Hall, stood a tall, willowy figure and observed the situation unfolding in front of her from behind large aviator glasses. Her head was slightly tilted to the side as if she was paying close attention to the less-than-dignified scene playing out in front of her, but the corners of her mouth were curled in a disdainful smirk, showing exactly what she thought about what she was witnessing. Finally, when Orla’s cough was reduced to an occasional wheeze, the figure stepped into the light, her four-inch, red-soled heels the only speck of color aside from her flaming red hair. Her steps produced a loud clacking noise that penetrated the chaos in an instant.
Sam’s mouth was dry, and as the woman took off the large glasses with a flourish, she couldn’t help but gape. She knew she probably looked ridiculous, like a total rube, but in that moment there was absolutely nothing else for her to do but stare at the newcomer. Sam felt rooted to the spot, completely bewitched, and helpless to move or say anything. It was a familiar feeling. Hell, she had just been reminiscing about that very state of helpless abandon delivered by those same long, perfectly manicured fingers that were now holding the clearly expensive glasses.
“Well, this is cozy, Doctor Fenway. I can see why the school is millions in debt and dead last in all the state and regional classifications. With its faculty gossiping and imbibing second rate alcohol at…” She paused dramatically and raised her hand to look at a stylish massive watch that was hanging off her slim wrist. “Ah, 10:30 AM. Isn’t drinking on school grounds against the school charter, my dears?” The velvety voice practically spat the last words, clearly mocking Orla’s customary term of endearment that she’d used just minutes ago. Which to Sam meant only one thing. She must have been standing in the doorway long enough to hear Orla talk about her. To hear them all talk about her.
With the black dress hugging all her lithe curves, the woman took several more strides into the Mess Hall, each step sounding like a gunshot. Out of the corner of her eye, Sam could see Willoughby stand up, stretch, take in his surroundings, and vacate the premises to proceed to his next sunspot. Sam had a distinct sensation that most of the people in the room would have followed him, given half a chance.
“My name is Magdalene Nox. I am the new Headmistress of Three Dragons. And you are all fired.”
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Bits and Bobs
ISBN number: 9798547234644
Publisher: Indie Author
Audiobook Publisher: Tantor Audio
Narrator: Abby Crayden
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