Goodreads: Ace of Spades
When two Niveus Private Academy students, Devon Richards and Chiamaka Adebayo, are selected to be part of the elite school’s senior class prefects, it looks like their year is off to an amazing start. After all, not only does it look great on college applications, but it officially puts each of them in the running for valedictorian, too.
Shortly after the announcement is made, though, someone who goes by Aces begins using anonymous text messages to reveal secrets about the two of them that turn their lives upside down and threaten every aspect of their carefully planned futures.
As Aces shows no sign of stopping, what seemed like a sick prank quickly turns into a dangerous game, with all the cards stacked against them. Can Devon and Chiamaka stop Aces before things become incredibly deadly?
Ace of Spades promises a thrilling mystery set at an elite prep school. The twist is that the book will also expose institutional racism. However, though the book provides much-needed representation of LGBTQ+ characters, as well as characters of color, the characterization itself is off, as a few of the characters read older than they are. And the mystery is solved too quickly and too easily to be truly thrilling. Ace of Spades has plenty of promise, but this debut title fails to deliver.
Perhaps one of the most glaring aspects of the book that first reveals itself is the characterization, and the ways in which several of the high-school age characters seem more like adults than teens. Devon comes across as an “average” teenage boy, concerned with getting good grades, applying to colleges, and supporting his mother. Chiamaka, on the other hand, reads more like a character in her 20s. One who also has a strange habit of breaking down her psychological state and the game she plays in order to be queen of her school. Most mean girl characters never have to directly tell the readers things to the effect of, “People thought X, Y, and I were friends. We were not. We were mutually using each other to climb to the top. I provided them with Z and they provided me with A. It was transactional, not personal.” This has the odd effect both of making Chiamaka sound like an old (and twisted) sociologist, and of making it seem like the narrator does not fully trust the readers to understand the social dynamics at play unless they are clearly spelled out by someone. Chiamaka is a wonderfully complex and flawed character–she just sounds like she ought to be in grad school instead of in high school.
One of the other main characters also reads like he ought to be in his 20s instead of in his teens. One of Devon’s love interests seemingly lives alone–at least, his mother is never around, and the characters all refer to “his” place and crash there whenever they want, no questions or permission asked. He also, like Chiamaka, has a habit of making very pointed observations that sound like they are coming from someone with more experience, though his tend towards wise life advice rather than towards explanations of how to game the school hierarchy. I had to repeatedly remind myself that this kid is supposed to be 17, not 27. He almost feels like a mentor to Devon instead of a love interest.
The plot does not notably improve the odd characterization. The characters solve the mystery easily halfway through the book, leaving the rest of the pages mostly for them to muse about what they will do about their knowledge. But unveiling the culprits at the midway point leads to uneven pacing and a lackluster denouement. And that is far from what a thrilling mystery should provide. Most mysteries reveal the perpetrator at the end, so changing the formula is certainly a risk–one that does not particularly pay off here.
Finally, the solution to the mystery is a bit too complicated to be believable. The author does explain the reasoning behind the premise in the end note, and the goal of exposing institutional racism is certainly laudable. It just seems like the book depicts an overly complex machine–one that requires years of work from an incredible number of people all for a very small return–when it could have chosen a solution that reads as more practical.
[SPOILERS FOR THE SOLUTION NEXT! READER BEWARE!] Just, what is the point of having dozens of people spending about 3.5 years to come up with increasingly intricate ways to convince only two people to drop out of high school? If they are that dedicated to ruining people’s lives, why haven’t they thought up a more efficient way of affecting a greater number of people in the 150 years they have been operating? The school actually sends a bunch of people to camp each summer to brainstorm bizarre ways to make the protagonists look bad, so they will be emotionally distressed enough to quit school, when the academy could just have a few teachers tank their grades or have the principal expel them or have a mentor give bad references. This probably will not be a popular opinion, but sometimes simpler solutions to mysteries are more effective. [END SPOILERS]
Ace of Spades is a debut book, and it reads like one. The characters’ motivations are over-explained, the teenagers sound more like college students than like high schoolers, and the pacing is uneven because, for some reason, the denouement occurs at the midway point instead of at the end. The idea of exposing institutional racism through a thriller set at an elite prep school is, however, promising. There is always room for growth and perhaps the author’s sophomore novel will be even better.