Originally, I had planned to read this as soon as it came out because, come on, a magic school novel by Naomi Novik? Gimme gimme gimme! But then early reviews started coming in and they were very mixed. People said the first half is only info-dumps, there are problems with the diversity, and the protagonist is unlikable. So these reviews put me on guard and that actually helped me enjoy the novel when I maybe wouldn’t have liked it as much otherwise.
A DEADLY EDUCATION
by Naomi Novik
Published: Del Rey, 2020
eBook: 336 pages
Audiobook: 10 hours 59 minutes
Series: The Scholomance #1
My rating: 7/10
Opening line: I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life.
Lesson One of the Scholomance: Learning has never been this deadly.
A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets.
There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere.
El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.
Okay, a few surprising things that made up my first impressions of this book:
Protagonist Galadriel – El for short – is not in her first year at Scholomance and it’s not the beginning of term when the story starts. I know this sounds like nothing special, but I have come to expect certain story beats from a Magic School novel and Naomi Novik decided to ignore them all. So the book begins when El is already well established in the Scholomance, knows the rules, knows some fellow students, and has a plan on how to survive up until and through graduation.
The problem is that this takes out a lot of the fun of the Magic School trope and makes it difficult to discover any actual plot until much later in the book. We’re thrown into this world, trying to learn how everything works, why things are the way they are, what’s the point of this strange school in the middle of the Void. El’s antisocial sarcastic voice may lead us through her monster-filled daily life, but there didn’t really seem to be a goal, other than “survive graduation”. That sounds badass, sure, but routine, no matter how monster-filled, doesn’t make for a compelling plot.
What kept me going nonetheless was El’s utter disgust and annoyance at having her life saved by a boy named Orion Lake. I wanted to find out why El would be so opposed to someone helping her when she needs it and also whatever Orion has done to her to make her hate him so. We weren’t off to the best start, but that seed of curiosity was there.
After a while, things become a little clearer, we learn more about how the school operates and what rules this world’s magic abides by. We also learn of a lot of things, creatures, jobs, and terms that aren’t explained yet but I guess Novik is keeping those for later books in the series. But those reviews I read weren’t wrong. The beginning of the book is mostly just a vehicle for getting information across to the reader. It could have been done in a more exciting way but I also can’t say that I ever felt bored. Sure, it wasn’t elegant but the information did get through and I was eager to learn about this crazy world where kids are sent to a school that is literally trying to kill them (not that Hogwarts didn’t have yearly murderous events, but come on). There are no teachers or supervisors. Assignments just appear in class, the school itself moves and changes in order to make life as hard as possible for the students. The library switches out books if you’re not looking, monsters fall from the ceiling, your food might be poisoned, and all things considered, the Scholomance is just not a very nice place to be…
What finally made this book gripping enough to make me go “just one more chapter” a dozen times in a row was the middle part and the characters. Although mentioned early on, it takes a while for them to become actual people, even El. Her off-putting, mean, and rude behaviour starts making sense the more you learn about the world. And the slow budding of friendships between her and some other students were well done. Her strange bickering relationship with Orion, whom she dislikes but who keeps saving her life and then being smug about it, her careful friendship with Aadhya and Liu, they were all lovely to watch, especially because they felt like individual friendships, not El simply joining a pre-existing group.
There was one scene that clearly stands out to me and probably added an entire star to my rating of this book. It happens around the middle and it is so good and so exciting and shows a side of El’s character that I had been hoping to see but had started to doubt existed. I know I’m super vague again but you guys! I do NOT want to spoil this part. It made me stay up late and pre-order the second book.
Towards the end, a sort of last-minute plot does come up to give the characters something to do other than just exist and survive. I enjoyed that part well enough even though it felt like a late addition to a novel that didn’t yet know what it wanted to be about. Naomi Novik has built an interesting world – at least judging from what little I know of it – and put some characters in it that have potential. I’m not sure how I feel about the Prophecy hanging over El’s head (we learn way too little about that, so I’m sure it will be back later in the series), but I did love the social commentary the Scholomance allows.
You don’t survive on your own, so alliances are the way to go. Some kids – the privileged ones, born into an enclave – appear at school already part of such an alliance. They share mana, they watch each other’s backs, they train and fight together to survive graduation as a group. The enclave-less students are either cannon fodder or they are granted the great honor of doing the work nobody else wants to do in order to maybe get a spot in an enclave. It’s not a particularly subtle metaphor for our own world but I found it worked really, really well and showed just how unfair it all is. How unprivileged people are being kept unprivileged, how the rich protect themselves and their own, how if you’re working your way up from the bottom you have to do 100 times more than someone who starts at the top simply by virtue of being born… That’s an aspect that truly grabbed me and it’s one more reason I want to continue this series.
There has been some controversy surrounding this book’s diversity. Well.. that sounded wrong. The controversy was about the use of the word “dreadlocks” and the fact that some evil magical critters (calle maleficaria) nest in the hair, implying it’s dirty and vermin-infested. I understand how that is hurtful to people with locs and Naomi Novik has apologized for her mistake. That’s really all I can say about that. We’ll have to see if she does better in the next book. I for my part am convinced she will be extra careful from now on.
The characters themselves are also meant to represent a wide range of people from all over the world. I love that thought but there wasn’t a lot of time to establish them as there’s always a monster trying to eat someone or an assignment to do. El is a half-Welsh/half-Indian girl, although there is very little mention of her Indian heritage. I liked learning about the Welsh side of her upbringing because, well, it was really interesting, not so much because she’s from Wales but because what we learn of her childhood is quite unusual and explains a lot about El’s personality. El’s fellow students come from all over the world and I loved how having different language skills makes an actual difference for your survival at school. If a spell only exists in Arabic or Hindi, then people who speak it are at an advantage – which is a super nice change to everything being English or tailored to English-speaking folks. In a place that is as skewed toward the wealthy and privileged (which come from places like New York or London), it’s nice to see that things other than money and “birthright” can help someone advance or at least give them a fighting chance.
My feelings about this book are very confused. I enjoyed reading it, even the parts that clearly could have been done better. Even the muddled, aimless beginning, even El’s unnecessarily gruff ways, even the bits where little happens. I loved some other parts and learning more about the world, seeing El manage to make some friends and finding a way to live by her own rules. But I know that Naomi Novik could have written this book much better with proper plotting from beginning to end, with better developed characters and just a teensy bit more info about why this world works the way it does. The rational side of me understands all of this but there was still something about this book that grabbed me. I try to analyze my own feelings about books but this time, I just can’t put my finger on it and I can’t explain it. I just liked it, okay!
I will definitely read the next instalment because now that all the set-up is done, I’m confident I’ll get all those things that were neglected here: deeper character development, more in depth world building, and a thrilling plot right from the start. Also, that mini-cliffhanger at the end didn’t hurt.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very Good!