Alex is a shy but surly teenager who lives with her adult sister Sarah and — despite their lack of parents — is homeschooled. This is odder than you might think, because Alex is a Weirn, a type of magic user whose power manifests as a semi-sentient familiar. Most young Weirns — as well as vampires, werewolves, and assorted other magical creatures — attend the Nightschool, a secret high school for the (magically) gifted. But though Sarah works at the Nightschool, Alex refuses to set foot on its grounds . . . for reasons that may have something to do with a curse. Then a mysterious calamity befalls Sarah, and Alex must enter the Nightschool to save her sister.
On the whole, this is a very enjoyable story. It’s interesting, suspenseful, and hilarious by turns; Chmakova has mastered the technique of putting wry, snarky characters in her story without undercutting the drama. The artwork is both readable and attractive, obviously influenced by manga but with its own coherent style. And while most aspects of the world will be familiar to anyone who’s read any urban fantasy, there are a few unique twists.
There are some problems with the series. For one, it has a large cast of characters, and though by the end more of them have been explored than I expected, a number remain pretty bland. More troubling is the pacing: there are enough characters, conflicts, backstories, and species for an epic — but the series is only four volumes long. (And we are still getting introduced to important stuff in Volume 4.) It made the sudden ending feel like a bit of a cheat — though apparently the author is planning more stories in this world, which may end up justifying the epic cast.
More importantly, the ending is very close to a deus ex machina. Granted, it is realistic that the plucky teenagers wouldn’t be able to save the world all by themselves — but there’s a reason that’s a cliche: because it makes for a more satisfying story. Hopefully, if Chmakova does write a sequel, her teenage heroes will start learning to save themselves.
(Also, there’s a glaring problem in the world-building. In the first few pages, we find out that the Nightschool is in the same building as a regular high school, and various magical safeguards are employed to keep human students out. But this is also a world where a pack of werewolves owns penthouse apartments with armed guards. Why can’t the Nightschool manage to rent its own building?)
Morally, the book is not hugely problematic, except for the metaphysics being a complete muddle. Various characters have psychic/magic powers, but where they come from is not explained. Sexy vampires turn up — and are mocked, hurrah! — but it’s never even hinted whether vampirism is a medical or metaphysical condition. There are also “demons” at the Nightschool, but what that word means in this world is unclear. They don’t come across as fallen angels implacably devoted to the suffering and damnation of mankind, but what they are besides “magical people with funny eyes” is left entirely unexplained. (Beyond the name, there is nothing to ties the “demons” to the Christian concept, so I don’t think it really counts as an attempt to subvert Christianity.)
Content-wise, there’s nothing much to worry about. There are some scenes of monsters attacking, but they weren’t terribly scary or gory. And in a refreshing deviation from the stereotype of urban fantasy, there’s no sex: the characters are much too busy with missing siblings, apocolyptic visions, and baby dragons getting loose in the classroom to bother with any torrid love triangles.