The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a villain problem. That's what people say. Truthfully, so far the D.C. Cinematic Universe also has a villain problem. This is despite both comic giants having a stable, in fact a veritable pantheon, of incredible villains they could use. There is nothing scary about a purple guy in a floating kitchen chair coercing people into collecting Infinity Stones for him, and there is certainly nothing frightening about a hipster Lex Luther with a bob he borrowed from Johnny Depp's version of Willy Wonka. I think he also borrowed the purple velvet coat, but I could be mistaken.
What's my point? My point is that Beth McMullen's Mrs. Smith's Spy School for Girls is a solid starting point for a series, but it lacks a substantial villain, which is pretty much a requirement when spies are allegedly racing to save the world. Only they aren't. There is never a threat to the world, or at least not one that's articulated enough to make this novel much more than sheltered kids run away from elite boarding school and have a mildly harrowing adventure.
Not having a substantial villain doesn't mean there is no villain. It just means the villain is much like a castrated Keyser Söze. Basically a Keyser Söze without Verbal Kint's terrifying and mesmerizing hype and any actual evidence of being a bad guy. The villain in this case is all other people's talk and no action. Is this a big enough fail to not recommend this series opener? No, it isn't. It isn't a deal-breaker because this is a series opener.
McMullen's is laying the groundwork for what's to come. However, what's to come must deliver on a villain that's basically described like BBC's Jim Moriarty, a psychologically unhinged consulting criminal with all of his fingers in all of the pies. I suppose it's fitting since one of the good guys is basically described as the bestest spy who ever spied in the history of spies. As I said before, none of this is a deal breaker because there is so much potential to be found in this middle grade novel.
The characters are where all the promise rests. Only at the moment they are watercolor versions of themselves - the paintings need more depth. Our protagonist, Abigail, lives on bad decisions. She's a little mouthy, a little feisty, a little angsty, a little anxious, and a little too precocious, but I like her. Sort of. Sometimes. No, I do, but she is definitely a grower. She grows on you in the best way. Granted we aren't introduced to her under the best circumstances. She has just learned that her mother is sending her to boarding school without any prior conversation or even a mere mention. She had plans for her 8th grade year, not to mention BFFs, but her mother has plans for now, so off Abby goes.
There she meets two girls who become BFFs and her previously mentioned non-boarding school BFFs are never mentioned again. A lonely boy, Toby, with a lot to prove rounds out their little crew. There is also Veronica, a mysterious ice queen who is pure plot device - for now. Each friend is given enough backstory to differentiate them and some are winners while others are not quite. What matters most is they are a diverse group of kids with a hankering for adventure. Although, their roles, with the exception of Toby and Veronica, are pretty limited until the final third of the novel. The adults are less impressive.
The first two thirds of the book features a brief look at boarding school life, some other small gems, and a bit of adventure that is at times confusing, but also fast paced and will prove a little heart racing for younger children. The final third of the novel feels like it's own entity. This really did feel like reading to short novellas that were squished together - connected, but stitched together with nearly invisible threads.
I hope this review conveys my mixed feelings on this novel. I'll read the second because there is something here, but I'm also expecting more from future entries. I need the villain to become a concrete thing and deliver on the promise. He needs to reveal himself as a clever and powerful force. He can't spend multiple books floating around in a kitchen chair sending his minions to carry out his wishes or a velvet coated weirdo with strange mannerisms or a CGI fire monster whose design was stolen from the Balrog in Lord of the Rings or . . . Fix the villain. Flesh out the kids. Dump the adults. Then we'll be cooking.