The clang of a bell wakes Phoenix McKay from a nap. Before the second clang, she is on her feet and racing for a door that weighs a metric ton (or, might as well, given her penchant for slacking off in gym class). She slips. A third clang. She manages to open it just enough to slip through. A fourth clang follows, then a fifth. She's late...unforgivably late...for the only appointment of her day that really matters. She stands outside as the sixth and final bell clangs, staring at an undisturbed blanket of show across Barinkoff Academy's parking lot. The school had one rule, inflexibly enforced: no students on campus after curfew. The last bus back to the dormitories left ninety minutes earlier.
It's cold, dark, and the dorms are miles away. She figures that if she's going to get expelled anyway, she might as well try to find a janitor or someone to give her a ride. But the people she finds in the hall aren't Barinkoff staff. They're freakishly beautiful, guys and girls alike, and dressed in clothes from another century. One gleefully informs her that they are the "Night Students." He casually mentions wanting to taste her. She doesn't know what that means, but the look in his eyes leads her to believe he might mean it literally. Just as she thinks running might be a good idea, she finds herself behind a Mr. Tall-Dark-Handsome. His name is Demetri and he clearly intimidates the others. First, he asks the young man if he heard him correctly. Did the word taste cross his lips? He then commands all of his classmates to say nothing about Phoenix to anyone before taking her away, an order that shocks them all.
Demetri leads her straight away to a secret passage that connects the library to the chemistry lab. After introducing her to a young mad scientist reminiscent of Topher Brink (Dollhouse), her savior ingests a half-dollar size pill and then he drives Phoenix home. He promises that the Headmaster needn't know about her breaking curfew if she promises to never miss curfew again. In doing so, he unknowingly breaks the first rule of Phoenix...never tell her what not to do.
If I could fill out an order form for the perfect novel, the result would be Taste. Kate Evangelista had me hooked from the very first sentence. She begins with a flawed first-person narrator in an acute, undesirable situation before immediately turning up the danger factor. Through Phoenix, she reveals to the reader a parallel world that is subtly sinister on the surface, with a separate cast of players that arrives and departs with the sun. From there peels back the layers on this world that lies behind and beneath Barinkoff Academy as if they were the petals of a flower. The pacing is like a choreographed dance between Phoenix, Demetri, and two other Night Students named Dray and Luka. The dialog is precisely to my liking; saying just what it needs to, at the right time and in the right way.
From the very first word, the details build into a steady crescendo of tension, along the main plot, the romantic arcs, and underlying subplots. When the climax hits, the strings start popping one by one, dropping the story by degrees, as if it were a weight suspended from them.
Through it all, Evangelista's cast never drops character. Demetri is stoic, duty bound and passion driven, and keeps his priorities straight to a fault. Luka, his diametrically opposed frenemy, is carefree, careless, and manages to be deep and shallow at the same time. Phoenix's wealth and privilege aside, she is sad, confused, curious, and intimately aware of how unfair life can be. The author's voice is pitch-perfect.
I would recommend Taste to fans of Beth Revis's Around the Universe, with a word of caution. Hold onto something, or this book may well blow you away.