I honestly had a very hard time with the beginning of Naomi Novik’s newest novel, A Deadly Education (2020). But based on my experience with her prior work, I kept going and though I don’t think this novel nears the strength of ones like Spinning Silver or Uprooted, I was happy I did.
El (short for Galadriel) Higgins is a student at the Scholomance, a sort of sentient, no-professors-here, boarding school for sorcerers. Students have various tracks of magic, the school presents them with lessons, supplies, and space. Which sounds nice and all, save that the school is filled with lots of monsters (called maleficaria or “mals”) of varying sizes and danger, and so opening up, say, a cabinet in a lab or taking a book off a shelf in the library might see you maimed or killed. And that’s the “good” day-to-day danger. At graduation, the seniors end up in the basement and have to fight their way free of a sea of the oldest and most dangerous maleficaria. Between the daily problems and the big graduation day, as El says, “Most of the time less than a quarter of the class makes it all the way through graduation.”
El herself is powerful, but her power comes from the ability to use other people’s lifeforce, and that, and other reasons, means she hides her abilities from her classmates. She’s a loner and has convinced herself (true or not) it’s by choice. Meanwhile, one of those classmates, the super-powerful Orion, decides it’s his job to keep an eye on her even as he’s saving hundreds of their classmates. Eventually El gets pulled into a circle, though she makes it as hard on herself and her classmates as possible, even as they hurtle toward the near-suicidal graduation “ceremony.” The question is, can she survive both her new “friends” and graduation.
As noted, I had a hard time at the start of A Deadly Education. El’s voice was too YA, too forced-snarky for me. And the first third of the book is also heavily (overly I’d argue) expositive. So I wasn’t enjoying the voice or liking the character, and the plot was constantly be interrupted by info dumps. Thus my problem.
Past the first few chapters, though, the snark starts to get toned down, the explanations are either behind the reader or more lightly dropped in, and it felt (though I can’t swear this is actually true) as if the book moved out of YA style/tone/vocabulary into more adult territory (as vague as that seems and as unintentionally dismissive of YA as that may sound). As El takes her tentative steps out from her circle of one, Novik shows a wonderfully deft manner in presenting true-to-life young anxieties. I could have done without the romance element, but outside of that, the relationships are warmly and realistically portrayed, with each of the characters deepening in tenor and richness.
The plot offers up lots of suspenseful moments and culminates with an exciting and costly battle. Along the way, Novik also drops in some pointed social criticism to add a bit of depth, as well as some lighter and laugh-worthy moments to balance out the darker, more serious aspects. And I absolutely loved the school itself, its oddness, its sense of truly wild magic, its many wonderfully original quirks, none of which I’ll spoil here. Believe me, if you think you’ve seen everything there is to see in a “magic school” story, you haven’t. This take is all Novik.
A Deadly Education still was a bit too YA for me (though I think it will be hugely enjoyed by younger readers and deservedly so), though it certainly grew on me past the first quarter or so, its sharp character insights and fantastic originality rewarding my perseverance.
When I first got my hands on a copy of A Deadly Education, I knew that if it was like any of Naomi Novik’s other novels, I wasn’t getting any sleep that night because getting to the end of the story would be far more important. And, happily, I was right!
Readers might have a hard time initially warming up to our narrator, El Higgins (don’t you dare call her by her given name, Galadriel), who’s managed to survive everything the terrifyingly lethal and incredibly amazing Scholomance has thrown at her by dint of hard work, a bottomless supply of snark, and a “weapons of mass destruction” level of magical talent. El hasn’t made it this far by playing nice and making friends, and the world certainly hasn’t made that option available to her, thanks to racism or other, equally odious, kinds of bigotry. It’s almost like the magical and mundane worlds are pushing her to become a practitioner of evil magics (a “maleficer” who exploits “malia,” in the book’s parlance) just to see how horrible she can become.
Thankfully, El has a soul and a strong desire not to harm others, but that doesn’t mean the Scholomance is taking it any easier on her. There are no teachers per se at this school, as magical lesson-sheets tend to appear out of thin air and textbooks can hide themselves, but students are still expected to learn enough to keep themselves alive until graduation day, at which point their biggest concern is surviving the hordes of magical beasts (“maleficaria”) who are all-too-eager to chomp them up. Survival means possibilities for success in one of the magical enclaves spread out around the globe, or at least the chance for a life mixing up ointments and running meditation clinics for non-magical folks. That’s if the endless void the school is magically suspended in doesn’t somehow kill them, or if a fellow student doesn’t do them in, or if the smaller mals infesting the school don’t turn the students into snacks, or if their very schoolwork doesn’t end them.
If you don’t complete a shop assignment on time, your unfinished work will animate on the due date and come after you with whatever power you’ve put into it. And if you try and get around that by not putting anything into it, or doing it wrong, the raw materials you should have used will all animate separately and come at you. It’s quite a solid teaching technique.
Equally unfortunately, El has the major headache of a silver-haired Chosen One boy from the New York enclave: Orion Lake. His over-enthusiasm for rushing into situations and tearing mals apart without a second thought has caused more problems than he can comprehend, and has absolutely not endeared him to El in any way. But through happenstance and a level of interference that provoked a lot of questions in my mind about the nature of the Scholomance, El’s social circle gradually expands; good thing, too, because her junior year rapidly becomes too dangerous for her to handle without extremely serious consequences.
In a lot of ways, A Deadly Education is the far more realistic antidote to all those happy-shiny-sparkly magical school books in which the Chosen One is amazing and wonderful and completely steamrolls over anyone else’s ability to learn anything because the Chosen One soaks up all the time and attention that should be allocated to the other students. Orion Lake might mean well, but he doesn’t see the negative effects of his actions, which El and the other members of their class constantly have to clean up after. And although Lesson One of the Scholomance is a compact book, Novik manages to work in commentary on class, privilege, discrimination, and a thoughtful cost-benefit analysis of personal agency. I was completely hooked by El’s voice, by her frustration at a lifetime’s uphill battle just to be herself, and her suspicion-evolving-into-something-else as she hesitantly allows other students to be a part of her life. And then, right at the end, Novik casts everything into doubt, making me gnash my teeth (really!) and hope fervently that the next book will be coming out soon. I’m so excited to see what lies in store for El and the others!
The Scholomance: It’s kind of like a semi-sentient Hogwarts with extra teeth (actually, more like a mouth bristling with razor-sharp fangs), no teachers, really brutal cliques, and an out-of-control infestation of all sorts of magical monsters (called maleficers or “mals”), large and small, that want nothing more than to eat the students. Many years ago a group of wizards banded together to build the Scholomance to give their children a better chance at surviving adolescence. The Scholomance blocks out most of mals, but enough manage to slip in that the body count at the Scholomance is alarmingly high … it’s just better than if the students weren’t at the school.
The worst problem is that the only exit from the school is through a hall where the largest infestation of mals exists, a whole menagerie of monsters lying in wait to eat the majority of graduating seniors. Years ago, Galadriel’s own father died during the graduating seniors’ mass exist from the school, protecting his girlfriend, who was pregnant with El at the time. Now El is at the Scholomance herself, a third-year student doing her best to stay alive. She’s a loner, angry and resentful of everyone around her — especially Orion Lake, a privileged and popular student whose life mission seems to be protecting other students from being killed by mals. El just wants Orion to leave her alone; his constant white knighting is making her look incompetent to other students, decreasing her chances of being able to join one of the better alliances of students, who protect each other during the graduation exit when they’re running the gauntlet of mals.
El is actually a superior magician, but no one else at the Scholomance knows it; she’s been hiding her talent, hoping to dazzle her classmates into asking her to join an alliance, but also because El’s particular magical affinity is for murder and mass destruction. When Orion stubbornly refuses to leave El alone, she decides to pretend to be his girlfriend in order to leverage his popularity to get a good alliance offer. The problem is, El is so brimming with anger and resentment that she can’t resist making rude comments to all of her classmates that she’s supposed to be schmoozing up to.
I’m a big Naomi Novik fan after reading Uprooted and especially Spinning Silver, but I was dubious about A Deadly Education for the first several chapters. There’s a lot of initial info-dumping to absorb here, and El, who narrates this story, is a hard main character to warm up to. She’s defined chiefly by her snark, her anger, and her unwanted affinity for mass destruction spells. She also is frequently her own worst enemy, driving others away when it would clearly benefit her — and wouldn’t really be all that difficult — to just play nice. Main characters who are prickly and rude to others and who shoot themselves in the foot with their own decisions are a hard type for me to enjoy. (I like the secret mastermind type characters far better.)
But eventually it occurred to me how brilliant Novik is to have created a character whose natural talent is mass murder and destruction, but to have that offset by the way her sweet, open-hearted white witch mother raised her. These two opposing factors, nature vs. nurture, create a major tension within El’s character, making her an unusually interesting person to me as I got more into the book, and by the end I was fully on board with her character. Orion isn’t just a hero; he has his own issues, and the friendship (and perhaps more) between him and El has a tough road to travel.
While the Scholomance has a worldwide, highly diverse student body, the handling of this diversity is on the shallower end of the pool. I didn’t really get much of a feel for their different cultures, including El’s half-Indian heritage. Other than that, though, there are an abundance of marvelous details in the worldbuilding. El’s focus on language and linguistics plays a major role in the way her magical talents develop, and there are magical drawbacks to learning new languages as well as benefits. The benefits of wealth and social status are shown very clearly in who thrives in the Scholomance, or even just survives. The metaphor for our own society isn’t subtle, but it does play out in a realistic way.
A Deadly Education is an intriguing twist on the magic school genre and a solid beginning for THE SCHOLOMANCE trilogy. I’m excited for when the next book, The Last Graduate, comes out in 2021.
I’ve enjoyed books by Naomi Novik in the past. She has written about dragons during the Napoleonic Wars…sort of, and I loved it. She’s able to write with a clear voice that I find very easy to enjoy. A Deadly Education did something more… it made me laugh.
El, Galadriel actually, is in her third year in the Scholomance. Think Hogwarts without the teachers, with no breaks to go home, no mail from your family and so many things trying to kill you that the survival rate just to make it all 4 years is low. She’s pretty grumpy, but you might be too if you were struggling to survive and you’d chosen to do it on your own terms instead of currying favor from the rich kids in school.
Novik does a terrific job of creating a place that feels menacing and interesting at the same time. I don’t want to go there, but I am quite happy to read about it. El has grown up with nothing but a mother who loves her and annoys her in equal measure. It’s got to be a challenge when one of you heals and cures with ease and the other has to restrain themself to avoid creating death and destruction on a whim. As the story evolves this relationship is one that kind of tugged at my heart.
Inject into this challenging environment one Orion Lake, hero-at-large. Where others run from the things that go bump in the dark, Orion charges into the dark and usually kills whatever caused the bump. The number of lives he’s saved grows by the day. And, of course, he annoys the hell out of El. She’s just trying to get through this, keep her head down and avoid unleashing Armageddon, but with Orion just happening to save her life over and over she keeps getting stuck hanging around him when she’d really much rather kill him.
Novik’s characters are so interesting. There are layers and revelations and sometimes I literally laughed out loud. If opposites attract then El and Orion will be bumping into each other a lot as the story progresses and El finds her way through the school year. Can she do it without killing anyone? Will she do it without dipping into the dark arts that seem practically made for her? It’s a lot of fun to follow.
This really feels like a YA book because it’s not terribly graphic about anything. That’s not a knock on the story, because the characters are ideal for the YA audience, but the story is so fun and interesting that I have already pre-ordered the next one. My one complaint is that there are pages of internal dialogue and explanations that I found myself skipping. I’m sure there was lots of stuff that would have been interesting, but I was too eager to keep the story rolling to slog through them. A minor annoyance, but not enough to keep me from recommending this whole heartedly.