An excellent premise and generally enjoyable read with a few drawbacks.
In an alternate Britain, fourteen-year-old serving boy Henry Grim becomes the first commoner to pass the entrance exam for Knightley Academy, the exclusive school that trains young men to be modern-day knights of the realm. As Henry begins his schooling at Knightley, he must face the difficulties of being set apart from the young aristocrats who make up the majority of the school's students. To make matters worse, someone seems to want Henry and his two friends, Adam and Rohan, out of Knightley, and has begun sending them strange news clippings and causing odd and sometimes dangerous accidents. Add to that the rumors of a pending war in a world that has known only peace for a hundred years and Henry's first year at the Academy begins to look challenging indeed.
The main characters are fairly moral throughout the majority of the book. Henry refuses to let his friend copy his homework - most of the time. He has a weak moment later in the story.
Some gambling is mentioned throughout the book. Students at the school bet on the outcome of an inter-school tournament, and on the outcomes of chess, checkers, and card games. Though Henry and Adam do not participate in the tournament betting, they do participate in some game wager. This lighthearted depiction of gambling is contrasted with a scene early in the book in which Henry's fellow servant comes back from the pub moaning because he has lost two week's wages gambling.
There are a few incidents in which the characters violate school rules, such as participating in an unsupervised fencing match and allowing a female friend to visit them in their dormitory room. I was rather impressed, however, at the decency with which Henry behaves at times even towards characters he dislikes. He is able to feel compassion for an enemy, and even offer an apology to one once he realizes he was in the wrong. Later in the story he expresses thanks for help toward another character he dislikes.
We are told early on that Henry was taught to read by a priest at his orphanage who was hoping that Henry would enter the priesthood until Henry got hold of some philosophy books and declared that he didn't believe in God, a point I found upsetting.
Later in the book, Henry meets Adam, a Jewish boy, and Rohan, an Indian boy who is apparently Hindu (a fact I found somewhat odd as he was adopted in infancy by a Caucasian British family). There is mention of dietary restrictions, as neither boy will eat pork. Adam sits quietly (or falls asleep) through the daily morning chapel at the school while the other boys recite prayers. At some points in the story he faces prejudice because of his faith.
Some injuries occur during fencing practice, and one scene describes a rather gruesome tapestry depicting a battle between a unicorn and a knight.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A character early in the story has clearly spent time drinking as well as gambling in the local pub, and there is mention of his hangovers. Taverns and public houses are mentioned. One of the teachers smokes a pipe.
When Henry stays in the City early in the book there is a very veiled mention of prostitution.
Some questions of propriety around members of the opposite sex come up repeatedly as Henry and his roommates become friends with Frankie, the headmaster's daughter, who often comes to visit them in their room despite rules to the contrary.
Crude or Profane Language or Content
The Lord's name is used in vain three times, twice by characters and once by the narrator. The word "bl**dy" is used repeatedly. We are told that Frankie embroidered something rude on a cushion, for which she was expelled from her school. She later repeats the phrase during an altercation with another character, but we are never told what, precisely, it was.
Adam makes a farting noise at one point. Early in the book, a group of boys surround Henry with the intention of spitting on him.
Highly reminiscent of the Harry Potter books (an underprivileged young man suddenly accepted into an exclusive British boarding school, a rival student with a French surname, a loathsome professor who may have it in for Henry, and a headmaster with twinkling eyes are just a few of the similarities), this book lacks some of the rich detail that enhanced that series. I don't mind the lack of description of Henry and his friends because I understand the value of letting the reader step into the shoes of an Everyman character whom they might choose to look just like them, but I found myself wondering repeatedly what some of the professors looked like, particularly in the cases of Sir Frederick and Professor Stratford, whose personalities at first seem very similar. We are told that Frederick is short, while Stratford has a wispy mustache, but I would have liked a bit more description to really make each one stand out, as well as more description of Headmaster Winter.
Despite lacking some details, the writing is solid and the story moves along at a good clip and kept me turning the pages. I found the premise to be an excellent one, and the execution of it entertaining. I can hope that in future installments Henry might forgo his early disbelief in God (which does not come up again in this book). It seems likely the students of Knightley Academy will be involved in a war and, as the saying goes, "There are no atheists in foxholes."