Skip to main content

Master Class


Master Class

Following the release of her breakout hit, VOX, Christina Dalcher returns with MASTER CLASS, a terrifying work of speculative fiction set in an America much --- too much --- like our own that asks how far we are willing to push ourselves to achieve perfection.

In the world of MASTER CLASS, everyone has a Q score. Your Q is determined by your intelligence, earning potential, the zip code in which you reside, the career of your spouse or parents, and a slew of other details that add up to success. Stressful enough for adults, the standardized testing that comes with figuring out a child’s Q has the potential to turn otherwise happy, curious children into numb, mindless robots. Even worse, the slightest drop in a score can alter their future forever. Score high, and you can attend top-tier schools from elementary school onward, guaranteeing yourself entry into a prestigious college, potential pairings with other geniuses, and a golden future. Score low, and you are bussed off to a federal boarding school where you can watch your prospects shrivel up and die.

The purported goal of this new system is to lower the costs of education, focus on the students with promise, and allow teachers to hone their talents on only the brightest and best. But the twisted reality means that the federal schools --- yellow schools --- are becoming overcrowded and forgotten, and the highest ranking schools --- silver, then green --- are pushing unreachable standards onto impressionable children.

Elena Fairchild is aware that there are flaws to the system, but why should she worry? A teacher herself, she knows that standardized tests are stressful and hard, but has no trouble passing them. With a PhD and a successful husband, she boasts a remarkable 9.73 Q, and has no reason to doubt that her daughters, Anne and Freddie --- bolstered by their parents’ genes, incomes and support --- will continue to test firmly in the 9 and above range. But Elena has a secret.

"Dalcher has penned a horrifying work with devastating real-world ties that is both thought-provoking and thrilling.... Poignant, chilling and painfully self-aware, MASTER CLASS is another eye-opening read from an author who is not afraid to ask the hardest questions imaginable --- and force her readers to answer them."

On the morning that nine-year-old Freddie throws a fit and begs to stay home “sick” to avoid the latest round of testing, Elena already has a lot on her mind. Her husband, Malcolm, who once seemed so brilliant and confident, has become elitist and smarmy. As Deputy Secretary of the United States Department of Education, the new system is not only championed by him but was created, in part, by him and acts as a physical manifestation of his own insecurities and ideals. Malcolm adores his eldest daughter, 16-year-old Anne, who looks up to him and has no trouble acing every standardized test thrown her way, but has largely begun to ignore Freddie, who seems to be on the autism spectrum. She is by no means unintelligent, but learns and grasps concepts differently than Anne and struggles with anxiety that pushes her into dissociative states. In other words, she’s a nine-year-old who has just been told that the test she takes on the first Friday of the month can determine her entire future. No pressure, right?

Alternating between the day Freddie bombs her test and is sent away to a yellow school in Kansas and her early relationship with Malcolm, Elena walks readers through not only the course of her marriage and motherhood, but the beginnings of the Q system and the ways that the Department of Education has come to run the country. Through her eyes, we watch as suggestions --- “Parents of children with Q scores below eight points are encouraged to consider yellow schools” --- become directives, until each and every child is sorted according to their Q ranking. As more and more parents and educators “hop on the commonsense train,” the education system becomes more standardized and far less humane. And now, with no warning whatsoever, the system has claimed Elena’s daughter.

As she grapples with the news and considers her disgust for Malcolm, Elena reveals that she has not always been so complacent and content to live within the system. As she explains, mothers-to-be are heavily encouraged to have the Q scores of their babies tested, even in utero. If you are unhappy with the potential Q of your fetus, there are clean, brightly colored clinics where you can “take care of it.” After all, who wants to raise a child with no hope for a successful, happy future? Isn’t it more humane to take them out of the race before they can lose? But when she was pregnant with Freddie, Elena couldn’t push herself to take the test and faked a promising result, knowing that Malcolm would force her to terminate any pregnancy that could result in a subpar child. Now Freddie is paying the price --- and Elena will do anything to rescue her from the education system.

With the fire of a mother, the gumption of a detective and the fearlessness of a warrior, Elena fights against the system until she, too, is sent away to teach at a yellow school --- the same one where her young daughter has been taken. She expects old classrooms and bland food, but what she finds is far more like a prison than any school she has ever seen, and now must save not only Freddie, but millions of children like her.

Though MASTER CLASS reads like a thriller, it moves quite slowly for the first third. I am not sure that I would have kept going had I not read VOX and knew the sort of brilliance this author is capable of. Elena’s relationship with Malcolm was a particular low point of the novel. Dalcher gives him almost no redeeming qualities, and it is difficult to understand how a man so sniveling and wretched was able to woo Elena or wield any power over his colleagues. He is so villainous in all of his manners that he reads more like a caricature; I could practically see him twisting his mustache with every jab and punishment. I wish this portion of the book had been just a bit more fleshed out so we could see exactly how Elena fell into her situation, but the payoff was worth it in the end.

Dalcher has penned a horrifying work with devastating real-world ties that is both thought-provoking and thrilling. As Elena, a woman who has largely benefited from the system, starts to fight against it, every flaw and shortcoming is exposed in a way that completely rocks her worldview. Dalcher reveals the twisted fine print of the Q system so slowly and insidiously that it is impossible not to compare it to our own education system and the ways that it has failed those who are not white, upper-middle-class and gifted. But the real horror of the book comes in the form of eugenics. Slowly, carefully and brilliantly, Dalcher explains the real master plan of the Q system: to breed a master race of humans that are as intelligent as they are healthy, as self-reliant as they are subservient...and remember, this is set in America.

Poignant, chilling and painfully self-aware, MASTER CLASS is another eye-opening read from an author who is not afraid to ask the hardest questions imaginable --- and force her readers to answer them.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on May 1, 2020

Master Class
by Christina Dalcher