Early in The Rivals, a teacher at Themis Academy quotes John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, saying “When you are sixteen, adults are slightly impressed and almost intimidated by you.” It’s a common conceit of young adult fiction that teenagers must step into an adult role and save the day when grownups are too blind, too stubborn, too afraid to act. The Rivals adds corruption to this list; the adults see what is happening but turn a blind eye to save face.
Into the void steps the Mockingbirds. Officially an a cappella group, the Mockingbirds are in fact the underground justice system at Themis Academy. Students who have been wronged by another can press charges; if found guilty, the accused are punished through the loss of privileges and public humiliation. The leader of the group is always a student who has brought a case to the Mockingbirds and won. This year, that student is Alex.
Last year, Alex faced her rapist in the Mockingbird’s courtroom. This year, she’s determined to uphold the Mockingbird’s code of justice, and school has scarcely begun when she gets her first case. A group of students are using drugs to cheat. As Alex and the other Mockingbirds begin to investigate they realize that the cheating ring is far more widespread than they thought–and the fallout may hit closer to home than they realize.
The Rivals was simultaneously engrossing and frustrating. The primary adult antagonist, Themis Academy dean Ivy Merritt, reminded me strongly of Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge. At times, her refusal to acknowledge criminal activity among the student body veered toward the cartoonish, and I found it hard to believe that the inaction of the administration to protect the students didn’t generate threats of lawsuits from parents.
On the other hand, adolescence is isolating. There’s a real sense of us vs. them in dealings with adults; The Rivals just takes it to an extreme. The adults are so consumed with maintaining the idyllic reputation of the school that they allow the students to run amok. The only answer is for the students to step in and take control of the situation.
Alex is not a particularly reliable narrator–she doesn’t lie to the reader, but she does lie to herself. As she investigates the cheating ring, she repeatedly rationalizes poor decisions that put her at odds with her co-investigators.
At the end of the book, my first thought was that the story was ripe for a sequel. I then discovered that The Rivals is itself a sequel, to Daisy Whitney’s 2010 book The Mockingbirds. That book tells the story of Alex’s rape and the subsequent Mockingbird trial of her attacker. While I’m a huge proponent of reading books in order, The Rivals can stand alone. Enough background information is given to quickly bring the reader up to speed; at no time did I feel like I’d come in mid-story.
Plot frustrations aside, The Rivals is an engrossing book that touches on serious issues facing teens today. Kids will respond to the idea of stepping outside the system for justice; an appealing thought to those used to dealing with adult bureaucracy.
Review by Kate Sweeney
The Rivals by Daisy Whitney; Little, Brown; c2014