The first thing you should know before you start The Headmistress is not to make assumptions. You may think a book involving Three Dragons Academy is set in a fantasy world and might contain, well, dragons. You may assume a book called The Headmistress will be a kinkcentric read. (Ahem, as in, “yes, mistress.”) You may even approach the truth, and expect this to be a straightforward romance with a thawing ice queen and a bit of an age gap. But even then there will be a few surprises waiting for you.
Our story takes place in the modern world, on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. I should mention that in the first few chapters I struggled to reconcile the language and cadence used by the characters, which read to me as British English, with the locale. After a while, you just roll with it. Sam Threadneedle is our protagonist and a bit of an underdog. A closeted math teacher at a conservative girls’ boarding school, her life up until this point has been cautiously lived, until a spontaneous one night stand with a beautiful woman in New York City brings it to a record scratch interruption.
Enter Magdalene Nox. She’s a total character who should have her own walk on music, and while some might find her extreme “villainous” nature off-putting, I personally think her entrance is where the book hits its stride. She’s Cruella de Vil meets Miranda Priestly, and just so you know, you’re all fired. Headmistress Nox, hired by the scheming school board, is about to turn Three Dragons school back to its Puritan religious roots, and ushers in a hurricane of conflict.
Professor Threadneedle was not prepared to see the woman who changed her life again, much less at her own school. What’s worse is that this woman, who’s been haunting her every waking moment since their encounter, is also threatening her livelihood. McKay does a great job with her use of flashbacks to “the night that changed everything.” We see the chemistry between Sam and Magdalene immediately, and having those little vignettes is key to how we view their relationship in the present.
One of the big tropes in the story is the age gap. Despite more than a decade between them, digging deeper into our main characters we find that they have a lot in common, especially in their search for home and acceptance. Sam was an orphan found on the steps of the school where she teaches. Magdalene may as well have been, considering her transient upbringing, facing rejection and struggling with her identity. Both women are closeted for their own reasons, both seek solace in Three Dragons, as well as each other.
I spent much of the book rooting for Sam and Magdalene, but let’s not forget about one of the most important secondary characters–the cat. Willoughby the cat has his own icy veneer, and like the Headmistress, this orange tom bows to no one. As Willouhby and Magdalene interact, we see her humanity and vulnerability through her cold facade.
McKay also expertly weaves a subtle thread of mystery into her story, involving threatening notes and dead rodents, escalating to attempts to harm one of our main characters and those she cares about. She steadily raises the stakes while giving us small breakthroughs in our main characters’ relationships. You can have a little snogging as a treat!
I also love that McKay includes a dynamic trans character, Lily, who serves a more complex role in the story than just being a foil for Sam and Magdalene. She even has a girlfriend! Milena McKay checks all the boxes for me in The Headmistress. Romance. Mystery. Betrayal. A handsome cat. A big reveal and a dramatic climax. And our underdog swinging her way to the top.