Monsters, Magic, and Complicated Friendships: Naomi Novik – A Deadly Education

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!

 

Reading the Hugos: Best Novel

What a ballot! When the nominees were announced, I had already read four of the six nominated novels and I thought I was doomed. How was I supposed to choose my favorites among these excellent books? Couldn’t there at least be two or three that weren’t as good? Well, I’m all caught up and while the ballot is still filled with fantastic books, at least I know somewhat how to arrange my list now.

The nominees for Best Novel

  1. Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera
  2. Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver
  3. Yoon Ha Lee – Revenant Gun
  4. Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars
  5. Rebecca Roanhorse – Trail of Lightning
  6. Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few

At this moment, I’m certain about my number one spot and the bottom two spots. But the three books in between could switch places a hundred times before the voting period ends. Because I just don’t know! They are incredibly difficult  to compare, they did such different things, they were all brilliant, and I really don’t know at this point what my final ballot will look like.

Cat Valente’s Space Opera is my number one for several reasons. First, I have adored Valente’s writing for years, she has never let me down, and while I think she should have won a Hugo already for Radiance, I believe this book is just as deserving. Humorous science fiction is rarely taken into consideration for awards so I don’t believe it will win. But when you pick up a book that everybody has compared to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it doesn’t let you down? That’s already a winner for me. I mean, who could stand up to that comparison and come out not just with “yeah it was okay” but with a nominateion for a Hugo Award?  Valente not only made me laugh out loud with the premise – Eurovision In Space – and the hilarious invasion scene as well as many silly moments, she also showed her originality with the alien species she invented. And, most of all, the story is full of heart and a deep love of humanity, warts and all. I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh and feel all warm and fuzzy inside like this. If Redshirts can win, than Space Opera should have a chance as well! I sincerely hope it does.

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver was a beautiful book. It suffered from too many unorganized POV characters and it wasn’t quite as good as Uprooted but that’s about all the negative things I can say about it now. I adore fairy tale retellings (as you may have guessed if you stop by here occasionally), so I’m putting it in second place for now. Novik turned a Rumpelstiltskin retelling into an epic fantasy, which is already a feat, but she also created memorable characters and great romances – I know many people didn’t like them, but I stand by my minority opinion.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun concludes the Machineries of War series. In order to read this, I had to first catch up on the second volume, which suffered from middle-book-syndrome a lot. This, however, was a worthy and exciting finale to an epic series. It started with a bang, made me think I knew where it was going, turned the other way, then swerved around yet again. It was clever, had great characters (Jedao must be one of my top ten characters ever!) and a satisfying ending. Seriously well done. I can’t wait for whatever Yoon Ha Lee publishes next.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars is easily the best novel of hers I’ve read. It was thrilling, despite being so character-focused and lacking in space battles. It made me uncomfortable and excitied and angry all at the same time. I loved that the protagonist lived in a stable, happy marriage, I loved how the book dealt with mental health issues. There were so many things I loved about it. And seeing how it won a Nebula Award, I wasn’t the only one. As I’m having such a hard time ranking these books, I’m going to use that win as an excuse to rank it a bit lower. It’s already won an award, after all, and while there have been several books that won both Hugo and Nebal awards in the same year, I didn’t think this book was quite amazing enough for that.

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning was on the bottom spot of my ballot for a long time. Not because it’s bad but because it was too ordinary for an award. A fun Urban Fantasy story in an original setting may be entertaining to read, and I did enjoy how Native American mythology gets woven into the plot, but I still don’t think this book deserves an award. Many, many other books are published every year that do the same thing: sassy, kick-ass heroine solves mystery while working through her dark past, meeting potential love interest, betrayal, battles, magic, etc. etc. Neither the writing nor the characters were good enough for me to want to give this an award.

However, Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few, which I expected to love, goes even below that (for now). In reality, this book was better written than Trail of Lightning, but it had absolutely no plot for such a long time that I kept asking myself why I was even reading it. It’s the equivalent of a married couple discussing who’s going to do the dishes tonight… except in space. For a few hundred pages! Although once the plot does start (very late in the novel), the book becomes really, really good, by then I was too fed up already with the hours I’ve spent reading about nothing (in space).

So this is it, my Best Novel ballot. I may yet switch the bottom two novels around, depending on how my feelings change in the next month or so. I may also change my mind about my slots 2 through 4, but for now, I’m okay with the way I ranked these books.

I’m sure everyone has their own way of deciding how to rank a certain book. As I’m not a professional critic, all I have to go on is my own enjoyment of any given book. And – as was the case here – if I enjoyed many of the books, I try and find other criteria such as originality, writing style, potential for rereading, etc. For example, I’ll probably never reread The Calculating Stars because although it was a very good book, it was not exactly a fun book, but I may give Spinning Silver another go and I will most definitely reread Space Opera someday. It’s a total comfort read.

How about you guys? Are you voting for the Hugos this year? Do you agree/disagree with my list? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments! 🙂

Great but not perfect: Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver

Like many other readers, I adored Naomi Novik’s first foray into fairy tale territory in the shape of her novel Uprooted. While not an actual sequel, Spinning Silver is the spiritual successor to that book and so had quite a lot to live up to. It wasn’t as amazing as Uprooted and there were some problems for me that could easily have been fixed, but it was still a great book overall. Not-so-good for Naomi Novik still means worlds above many other authors, after all.

SPINNING SILVER
by Naomi Novik

Published by: Del Rey, 2018
Hardcover: 466 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold.
When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. Set an impossible challenge by the nameless king, Miryem unwittingly spins a web that draws in a peasant girl, Wanda, and the unhappy daughter of a local lord who plots to wed his child to the dashing young tsar.
But Tsar Mirnatius is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike. Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and her two unlikely allies embark on a desperate quest that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power, and love.
Channeling the vibrant heart of myth and fairy tale, Spinning Silver weaves a multilayered, magical tapestry that readers will want to return to again and again.

If you’ve read the short story of the same name, collected in The Starlit Wood, then you’ll know exactly how this novel begins. Miryem, the daughter of a rather useless moneylender, takes matters into her own hands. After all, her father may be very good at lending money, but he is rubbish at collecting it – which leaves him and his family in poverty while others thrive with the money he lent them. Miryem will not stand for this unfairness, especially since her mother has taken sick. The way she hardens her heart to the people who owe her father money, the way she gets better and better at her job, it was just so incredibly fun to read. Because you know, as the reader, that although Miryem grows cold and hard, she is still a loving person.

The character I liked even better – although she was completely unnecessary for the entire plot – was Wanda though. She lives with her brothers and their abusive father who, as so many do, owes Miryem’s father money. Wanda sees her chance to get away from her father and starts working for Miryem. She even manages to save up some money for herself without letting her father know. This first act of friendship between Wanda and Miryem (who understands quite well what is going on but doesn’t always say so) made me think this book could actually be as good as Uprooted.

However, there is a third protagonist, Irina, who is also set on her path by her father’s actions. Come to think of it, every one of these girls has to fix things their fathers have broken. Miryem needs to do her father’s job properly, Wanda needs to work to pay her father’s debts, and Irina… well Irina needs to marry the tsar, a man who terrifies her and who may be way more than just an arrogant man – because of her father’s greed.  I liked all three of these girls very, very much. They are quite different but they share resolve and cleverness, something I appreciate much more in a protagonist than pretty looks. None of them are fooled by magic or tricks, and while they may not immediately find a way out of their predicaments, they at least work out a plan and fight for what’s important.

As it turns out, this important thing may be way more than just their individual freedoms. Miryem – who accidentally entered into a bargain with this world’s Rumpelstistkin, a Staryk, a creature of winter and cold, wants to return to the human world. Wanda wants to be free of her father and live a normal life with her brothers, Irina wants to survive whatever lives inside the tsar. Irina and Miryem have to work together to – drumroll – probably save the entire world. What started as a clever retelling of Rumpelstiltskin turns into an epic battle of fire and ice, evil and probably-mostly-evil. It was awesome and the way things are resolved made me cheer!

What I didn’t like and what really diminished the entire story for me were the randomly added viewpoint characters. It starts out with Miryem, Wanda, and Irina alternating chapters. Then suddenly, Irina’s old maid has a viewpoint, Wanda’s brother gets one, but in the middle of chapters so you often don’t know whose head you’re in. These added perspectives unfortunately don’t do anything to further the story and these characters (except maybe Wanda’s brother) are so unimportant that adding their view doesn’t make sense. It really took me out of the book a lot of times and made me almost angry. I don’t care what Irina’s nurse thinks and does – the action is somewhere else, the characters I care for are somewhere else. Get back to Irina and Miryem already!

Another thing I’m unsure about was the romances. There are several, yes, and I kind of really liked one of them (not telling which, though) but I’m unsure about the other. Both relationships start out rather abusive or at least unfriendly. While I could see a slow coming together and growing to know each other with one pair of characters, I felt that the other pair just stayed together for convenience. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the ending, but I’m just not sure if I should like it.

All things considered, this was a very good book that shows the strength of women fixing problems men created, that puts female friendships front and center, and that has a wonderful layer of epic fantasy world building that I didn’t expect. I hope there will be more fairy tale retellings by Naomi Novik, even though I didn’t love this as much as Uprooted.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good

Naomi Novik – Uprooted

Sometimes, special books come from unexpected places. I had read the first two Temeraire books by Naomi Novik and, while liking the first one, didn’t like them enough to continue the series. There was something missing that I couldn’t put my finger on, so I pretty much dismissed the author as “just not my cup of tea”. Then I won an ARC (which turned out to be a beautiful finished hardcover – THANK YOU, Macmillan! Really, it’s beautiful.) of this fairytale-esque new novel and it took exactly one sentence for me to fall in love.

uprootedUPROOTED
by Naomi Novik

Published by: Macmillan, 2015
Hardcover: 437 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Our dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, ambitious wizard, known only as the Dragon, to keep the wood’s powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman must be handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as being lost to the wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows – everyone knows – that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia – all the things Agnieszka isn’t – and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But no one can predict how or why the Dragon chooses a girl. And when he comes, it is not Kasia he will take with him.

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This has to be one of the best opening sentences I’ve read in a long, long time and Uprooted is my favorite book of the year so far. The first chapter does exactly what a good beginning should do. It establishes a world, it introduces the main character, and it sets its hooks firmly into your mind and makes it impossible to stop reading.

Every ten years, the local wizard, called the Dragon, chooses a girl from Agnieszka’s valley and takes her away to his castle. Nobody really knows what he does with them, although they all say he never laid a finger on them. Agnieszka is the right age to be chosen but she isn’t worried. The entire valley knows that her best friend Kasia – beautiful, talented, brave – is the most likely choice. But of course things don’t go as expected and Agnieszka is chosen instead of her childhood friend.

The first few chapters are a bit misleading as to where the story will go. The mood of the novel screams Fairy Tale right from the start, so I thought I’d get a sort of Beauty and the Beast retelling. But while Agnieszka’s first months in the tower are spent cleaning, cooking, and bickering with the Dragon, her presence seems to irritate him more than excite him. She is clumsy, constantly gets her clothes dirty, and stubborn. It’s a match made in heaven. Despite their dislike for each other, Agnieszka slowly learns some magic from the wizard, and we readers learn what his “job” is in the first place (more on that later).

One aspect that made this book so great is Agnieszka’s development as well as her relationship with the Dragon. I understand some people’s criticism of the romantic sub-plot, but it pushed so many of my buttons that I couldn’t help but adore it. These two spend most of the novel bickering, arguing, and generally disagreeing – but it is their differences that make them so compatible. While the Dragon works every spell meticulously and by the book, Agnieszka takes a more intuitive approach and shows amazing talent. But it is only when they work together that their greatness can shine. In fact, her actions are what drives the plot, unlike so many reactive fairy tale heroines.

So Agnieszka is a wonderful protagonist and I loved her cleverness and fierce loyalty, the real main character of Uprooted is the Wood. Its menacing presence can be felt on every page, and the magician’s job becomes much more interesting once you know just how evil that Wood really is. Sometimes, it takes people, sometimes it gives them back, but they are never the same. Other times, it kills anything in its path, it eats entire villages, it ruins people’s lives with disease or madness. As an antagonist, this was one of the more original and disturbing ones, and I completely loved how the Wood’s influence was shown. The author made sure that, once the characters venture into the Wood, her readers are properly scared of what they’ll find there.

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Naomi Novik manages to pack an impressive amount of plot into the 400 pages of this book. Some reviewers mentioned that a trilogy would have been more suitable, but I like Uprooted just the way it is. It builds its world slowly, then relies on Agnieszka’s actions to be the catalyst for change. Her friendship with Kasia is what sets in motion the actions that will lead to a thrilling climax. I loved how front and center this friendship between women was in the novel, but it is also the one part that I had issues with. The fact that Kasia and Agnieszka are friends is explained in the very first chapter, and while we’re told that they’ve spent their entire childhood together and are very close, there wasn’t any time to show us this friendship before Agnieszka gets taken by the Dragon.

But the author makes up for that minor flaw by making Kasia in important character throughout the novel. You’d expect her to be nothing but a memory in Agnieszka’s mind, to maybe be mentioned once or twice, but you wouldn’t expect her to turn into a badass heroine in her own right. Kasia’s development was as gripping as Agnieszka’s and I loved seeing them work together as a team.

uprooted USThe Dragon… oh, the Dragon! This may say more about me than it does about the book, but I adore grumpy guys as romantic heroes. The Dragon was a Mr. Rochester of sorts, albeit a bit more cold-hearted and distant. As I said, Agnieszka spends most of her time disagreeing with him, and even when he should be proud of her or magical abilities, all she gets are off-hand remarks that sound more like criticism than praise. So the sexual tension is pre-programmed and I will go on record and say that the romantic scenes were butterfly-inducing, sexy, and beautifully written. I wouldn’t have minded more of that…

Uprooted is a stand-out novel that can be enjoyed on many levels. It’s a fairy tale (Baba Yaga! Evil Woods! Magic!), it’s a story about place and belonging, about friendship and bravery, about politics and talent. Much like The Goblin Emperor last year, this book stole my heart and I already look forward to reading it again.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection

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Second opinions: