Review: A Deadly Education
pubsub.slavino.sk / planetdebian · Wednesday, 27 January, 2021 - 04:12 · 6 minutes
Review: A Deadly Education , by Naomi Novik
|Series:||The Scholomance #1|
Some children are born with magic, which grows as they mature. Magic attracts maleficaria: extremely deadly magical beasts that want to feast on that magic. Having innate magical ability is therefore a recipe for endless attacks from monsters and a death at a young age. This was true even for the enclaves, which are the rich, gated communities of the magical world.
Hence, the Scholomance. This is a boarding school for magic users placed in the Void and protected against maleficaria as completely as possible while still letting the students graduate and leave after their senior year. Students are sent there via a teleportation spell with a weight allowance, taught magic by automated systems and magical artifacts, and left on their own to make alliances and survive. Or not survive; protected as well as possible still means that there are maleficaria everywhere, sneaking past the wards of the graduation hall and looking for snacks. The school sends cleansing fire through the halls at certain times; the rest of the time, the students either learn enough magic to defeat maleficaria themselves, form alliances with those who can, or die to feed the magic of the school.
Enter Galadriel, or El as she prefers. She's not an enclave kid; she's the grumpy, misfit daughter of a hippie mother whose open-hearted devotion to healing and giving away her abilities make her the opposite of the jealously guarded power structures of the enclaves. El has no resources other than what she can muster on her own. She also has her mother's ethics, which means that although she has an innate talent for malia, drawing magic from the death of other living things, she forces herself to build her mana through rigorously ethical means. Like push-ups. Or, worse, crochet.
At the start of the book, El is in her third year of four, and significantly more of her classmates are alive than normally would be. That's because of her classmate, Orion Lake, who has made a full-time hobby of saving everyone from maleficaria. His unique magical ability frees him from the constraints of mana or malia that everyone else is subject to, and he uses that to be a hero, surrounded by adoring fans. And El is thoroughly sick of it.
This book is so good in so many different ways that I don't know where to start.
Obviously, A Deadly Education is a twist on the boarding school novel, both the traditional and the magical kind. This is not a genre in which I'm that well-read, but even with my lack of familiarity, I noticed so many things Novik does to improve the genre tropes, starting with not making the heroic character with the special powers the protagonist. And getting rid of all the adults, which leaves way more space for rich social dynamics between the kids (complex and interesting ones that are entangled with the social dynamics outside of the school, not some simplistic Lord of the Flies take). Going alone anywhere in the school is dangerous, as is sitting at the bad tables in the cafeteria, so social cliques become a matter of literal life and death. And the students aren't just trying to survive; the ones who aren't part of enclaves are jockeying for invitations or trying to build the power to help their family and allies form their own.
El is the first-person narrator of the story and she's wonderful. She's grumpy, cynical, and sarcastic, which is often good for first-person narrators, but she also has a core of ethics from her mother, and from her own decisions, that gives her so much depth. She is the type of person who knows exactly how much an ethical choice will cost her and how objectively stupid it is, and then will make it anyway out of sheer stubbornness and refuse to take credit for it. I will happily read books about characters like El until the end of time.
Her mother never appears in this book, and yet she's such a strong presence because El's relationship with her matters, to both El and to the book. El could not be more unlike her mother in both personality and in magical focus, and she's exasperated by the sheer impracticality of some of her mother's ideals. And yet there's a core of love and understanding beneath that, a level at which El completely understands her mother's goals, and El relies on it even when she doesn't realize she's doing so. I don't think I've ever read a portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship this good where one of the parties isn't even present.
And I haven't even gotten to the world-building, and the level to which Novik chases down and explores all the implications of this ridiculous murder machine of a school.
I will offer this caveat: If you poke at the justification for creating this school in the way it was built, it's going to teeter a lot. That society thought this school was the best solution to its child mortality problem is just something you have to roll with. But once you accept that, the implications are handled so very well. The school is an inhuman character in its own right, with exasperating rules that the students learn and warn each other about. It tries to distract you with rare spellbooks or artifact materials because it's trying to kill you. The language tapes whisper horrific stories of your death. The back wall of your room is a window to the Void, from which you can demand spellbooks. You'll even get them in languages that you understand, for a generous definition of understand that may have involved glancing at one page of text, so be careful not to do that! The school replaces all of the adult teachers in the typical boarding school novel and is so much more interesting than any of them because it adds the science fiction thrill of setting as character.
The world-building does mean a lot of infodumping, so be prepared for that. El likes to explain things, tell stories, and over-analyze her life, and reading this book is a bit like reading the journal of a teenage girl. For me, El's voice is so strong, authentic, stubborn, and sarcastically funny that I scarcely noticed the digressions into background material.
And the relationships! Some of the turns will be predictable, since of course El's stubborn ethics will be (eventually) rewarded by the story, but the dynamic that develops between El and Orion is something special. It takes a lot to make me have sympathy with the chosen one boy hero, but Novik pulls it off without ever losing sight of the dynamics of class and privilege that are also in play. And the friendships El develops almost accidentally by being stubbornly herself are just wonderful, and the way she navigates them made me respect her even more.
The one negative thing I will say about this book is that I don't think Novik quite nailed the climax. Some of this is probably because this is the first book of a series and Novik wanted to hold some social developments in reserve, but I thought El got a bit sidelined and ended up along for the ride in an action-movie sequence. Still, it's a minor quibble, and it's clear from the very end of the book that El is going to get more attention and end up in a different social position in the next book.
This was a wholly engrossing and enjoyable story with a satisfying climax and only the barb of a cliffhanger in the very last line. It's the best SFF novel published in 2020 that I've read so far (yes, even better than Network Effect ). Highly recommended, and I hope it gets award recognition this year.
Followed by The Last Graduate (not yet published at the time of this review).
Rating: 9 out of 10