A Deadly Education
, by Naomi Novik
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
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,
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
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
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
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
). Highly recommended,
and I hope it gets award recognition this year.
The Last Graduate
(not yet published at the time of
Rating: 9 out of 10