Review: Rites of Passage by Joy N. Hensley

Rites of Passage by Joy N. Hensley.

Published: September 9, 2014.
Published by: Harper Teen.
Source: Requested an ARC from the publisher for review consideration. Thanks, Harper Canada!

Goodreads Synopsis:
Sam McKenna’s never turned down a dare. And she's not going to start with the last one her brother gave her before he died.

So Sam joins the first-ever class of girls at the prestigious Denmark Military Academy. She’s expecting push-ups and long runs, rope climbing and mud-crawling. As a military brat, she can handle an obstacle course just as well as the boys. She's even expecting the hostility she gets from some of the cadets who don’t think girls belong there. What she’s not expecting is her fiery attraction to her drill sergeant. But dating is strictly forbidden and Sam won't risk her future, or the dare, on something so petty...no matter how much she wants him.

As Sam struggles to prove herself, she discovers that some of the boys don’t just want her gone—they will stop at nothing to drive her out. When their petty threats turn to brutal hazing, bleeding into every corner of her life, she realizes they are not acting alone. A decades-old secret society is alive and active… and determined to force her out. At any cost.

Now time's running short. Sam must decide who she can trust...and choosing the wrong person could have deadly consequences.

So. Rites of Passage. Considering that the last memorable experience I had with teens in military school was the Disney channel movie Cadet Kelly with Hilary Duff, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from this one. I just knew I wanted it to be good and that I wanted Sam McKenna to kick some misogynist butt. Luckily for me, RoP was just what I'd hoped for and more.

The military is a family tradition for the McKennas. So are dares. So when Sam gets a dare from her older brother, Amos -- the last one he gave her before he committed suicide -- she's determined to complete it, no matter the cost. This is how she ends up going into military school. But it takes so much more than just that dare to keep her there through all the hazing and intense hate that she faces as one of the first girls at the Denmark Military Academy (DMA). Sam proves time and time again over the course of the book how ridiculously strong and determined she is. Not just physically strong -- though she can definitely kick lots of her fellow cadets' butts -- but possessing an incredible amount of inner strength. Sam faces abuse that would drive everyone I know right out the front doors but she always manages to pull herself together and stand strong. Sometimes it takes a good cry or a few painful moments to get her there but that only serves to make her feel more real to me as a reader. I wish I had a friend like Sam to keep me going when things get rough because she is pretty incredible.

Speaking of incredible, let's talk about Drill, shall we? Drill (or Dean, but he is most commonly referred to by his rank of Drill Sergeant) is a hot, caring, and definitely not misogynistic military man who caught Sam's (and my) attention. Technically he's 17 but I actually kept forgetting that because he acts and comes across (especially with his strong military presence) as older... closer to 22 or 23 in my mind (whereas Sam, for context for you, felt closer to mid-to-late teens like she was supposed to... she's 16, I believe). He outranks her which makes any sort of canoodling of theirs strictly against DMA rules, but they are both very conflicted over this rule because they definitely (and understandably) have the hots for one another. The forbidden romance played out really well even though sometimes I thought they were being a little too lax on keeping things secret, especially considering how many people were out to get Sam. Occasionally, the fact that they weren't getting caught felt a little too good to be true, but overall I loved the tension of the "we can't but oh we so want to" (PG-rated) heat between them.

It's not just the central characters (and their romance) that made this such a fantastic story. The actual plot and action played a large role as well. I loved getting a glimpse inside the military academy, and watching the new recruits go through team building exercises and training was really interesting for me. The rituals of military school are foreign to me but clearly not foreign to Hensley, who showed them off very well. They even made me want to get up and exercise and feel fit and get stronger... well, after just one more chapter, that is. Tied into that is the whole idea of the secret society working to rid the DMA of its first female recruits. Seeing this develop and unravel both for Sam and for readers from a few nasty cadets into the work of an entire secret society was engrossing and I loved the way Hensley tied it all in with the background, rituals and routine of military school.

Overall, Rites of Passage kind of feels to me like the surprise book of the year so far. I didn't hear a lot about it before I dove in but it turned out to be a standout contemporary novel with action, tension, and great characters. I didn't really get into the side characters here (because I figured my review was already long enough and I have done enough rambling) but there are some excellent players who only serve to strengthen Sam's story, whether they're on her side or not. Her fellow recruits and everyone she meets at the DMA, good and bad, as well as her own family bring an array of conflict and comfort to Sam which only made the story richer. A great debut... I'm excited to see what Hensley writes next!

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