Book Review: A DEADLY EDUCATION by Naomi Novik


Naomi Novik is back with a brand new series, and dear readers, I am hooked.

Title: A Deadly Education
Author: Naomi Novik
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: September 29, 2020
Hardcover: 336 pages

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.

Stand alone or series: Book 1 of the Scholomance Series

How did I get this book: Purchased

Format: Hardcover

Review

Galadriel–El to her friends (not that she has many of those)–is having a real bitch of a junior year. To be fair, she and the other high schoolers within the Scholomance are all having a hard time. It’s not easy being enrolled in a magical school that is actively trying to kill you every second of every day for four years. But that is what the Scholomance does–a teacher-less interdimensional academy into which young magic-workers are whisked away to learn first-hand that magic is a void of eternal darkness filled with monsters that want to eat you alive.

El’s specific problem is that she’s a dark sorceress–the dark sorceress, in fact, as a pretty damning prophecy says she’s basically going to destroy the world. El is unparalleled in her affinity to wield spells of death and cosmic destruction, but she doesn’t actually want to turn to the dark side. So, El works hard to build mana–an energy source for performing spells–the noble way (pushups, situps, performing physical torture like needlework) instead of pulling it out of some unwitting freshman. She has a Plan: keep her head down to stay alive, store up enough mana to show her classmates how powerful she really is (but not too soon or else she might be killed by said classmates), and getting a bid in an enclave so that she and her mother can be protected from the constant threat of sorcerer-consuming monsters.

El’s Plan is solid–until Orion Lake starts to save El’s life. Repeatedly. A New York enclaver with a major savior complex, Orion is confused when El tells him off after he saves her life for the second time. Then he investigates her for thinking she might be behind another student’s death, and is determined not to let her leave his sight. In response, El spins the attention to her benefit and all of a sudden is getting attention from the other enclavers–if she can convince folks to believe she’s dating Orion, she just might be able to get them to believe that he will follow her to a different enclave. (And everyone wants a piece of maleficaria-slayer Orion Lake.) But then things get messy–and El has way bigger problems than making folks believe she’s in a relationship with Orion Lake.

I am a longtime fan of Naomi Novik’s work, starting with her Temeraire books and building to a crescendo of adoration for both Uprooted and Spinning Silver. As such, I had high expectations for this new first book in a series–and I’m thrilled to say that Novik delivers, though I had some initial misgivings. A Deadly Education plays within some very familiar tropes (hello, magical boarding school and I-hate-him-I-like-him, my old friends), but somehow manages to be shockingly inventive, darkly funny, and fun. In other words, dear reader, I absolutely loved this book.

Galadriel Higgins is our antisocial would-be-dark-sorceress narrator, and she is as abrasive (and unreliable) as they come. Snarky to a fault, El is constantly evaluating her environment and those around her to understand their angles and motivations. She’s secretive and defensive to ensure that no one knows she’s an untapped powerhouse of dark magic, choosing to bide her time before she reveals her hand. El is sarcastic but there’s a fair share of vulnerability under all that acid; she’s smart, and she also happens to be pretty loyal to the few allies she makes in the Scholomance. I loved watching El’s layers peel away throughout this first book, as she tries to deny her own feelings and the friendships she starts to make (even though she complains about them the whole way). And while I usually am not a fan of the hero-complex type, the balance that Novik introduces with Orion’s character is perfect–he’s “popular” in that he kills a ton of monsters and tries to save everyone’s life, but no one really cares to get to know the guy. Between El’s caustic acid and Orion’s white knight, there’s a pretty fun dynamic that reveals the actual people beneath their facades.

Truly, though, the reason A Deadly Education is so damn good is because of Novik’s impeccable worldbuilding. I love the idea of an interdimensional magic school that is kind of falling apart at the seams, and intent on killing its students. Dark boarding schools for magic workers have been done (see Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey, or The Witcher series from Andrzej Sapkowski, or Galen’s training in Assassin’s Apprentice), but Novik’s take is the first time I’ve read a school that no one really remembers how it exists or works, and seems solely to exist in order to kill most of its attendees. There are no kindly headmasters here, no safety from the constant barrage of death–you either learn to protect yourself, or you die. (It’s to the point where even the cafeteria food that appears on schedule may be poisonous, and you never take a shower because bad things happen in the bathroom.)

In the same darkly satisfying vein, the cutthroat rules of magic (energy always comes from somewhere) and scarcity of protection, both within the Scholomance’s walls and beyond with haves (enclavers) and have-nots (everyone else) are wholly believable.

In other words: I absolutely loved this book, and cannot wait for the next instalment.

Reviewer’s Note:

It would be impossible for me to review this book without addressing the reviews and readings that have raised concerns of racism within A Deadly Education. As a bi-racial person of color, I did not personally find this book to be racist in my reading. However, this is my personal reading and I deeply respect those who have been hurt by this novel. It is not my place to speak for BIPOC who felt marginalized by this book, nor is it my intent to dismiss such readings of A Deadly Education. I can only share my personal interpretation, which I hope fellow readers will take into consideration.

I did not find El’s references to other characters of color (of which El is one, herself) or languages to be racist in my reading–she is an antisocial heroine in an environment that is actively trying to kill her. Further, El is half-Welsh and half-Indian but raised entirely by her Welsh mother in Wales; as such, it makes sense to me that she doesn’t identify with her Indian relatives. (As a bi-racial third culture kid, I also struggle with cultural identification and understand El’s actions here.)

These things said, I wholeheartedly agree that Novik’s use of the word “dreadlocks” in one passage of the book (in which El talks about long hair being a very bad idea in the Scholomance, and dreadlocks being a haven for lockleeches to lay their eggs) very clearly evokes a harmful racist stereotype. Taken in the context of the world–in which no one can take a shower or wash their hair without facing near-certain death–I understand that Novik probably did not intend to make this association, but as we all know intent does not always equal reality. While I was glad to see that Novik issued an apology and the actions that she is taking (removing this passage from next printings as well as the electronic versions of the book, and to ensure that sensitivity reads in the future will happen post-last pass edits) come across as both heartfelt and appropriate, this casual misstep shows us again how deeply ingrained such historical racist stereotypes are, especially in publishing.

I recommend reading these posts that explore differing interpretations of racism in A Deadly Education. And if you are still interested in the book (or if you have read the book) and would like to discuss, please leave a comment below.

Rating: 8 – Excellent

Thea

Thea James is one half of the maniacal duo behind The Book Smugglers. She is Filipina-American, but grew up in Hawaii, Indonesia, and Japan. A full-time book nerd who works in publishing for her day job, Thea currently resides in Astoria, Queens with her partner and rambunctious cat. COOKING FOR WIZARDS, WARRIORS & DRAGONS (available August 31, 2021) is her first cookbook.



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