Book Review

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

CW/TW warnings inside

CW/TW: murder, violence, and gore surrounding teenagers.

Naomi Novik knows how to write a freaking good fantasy novel. I’ve been thinking nonstop about A Deadly Education for the past week and have been frantically messaging speculation/theories to other readers. It’s the type of story that will exist rent-free in my brain for the foreseeable future. No matter how much I try, I can’t scrub it out because exciting details keep invading my mundane day-to-day thoughts.

So let’s get right to it! I don’t think A Deadly Education will work for everyone, even Novik fans. It’s nothing like Uprooted or Spinning Silver. Trust me on this. And one more warning: Be prepared for an extended period of mourning: the sequel to this book isn’t out until next year and you will scream at the last line of the book.

The basic premise: teenage wizards undergoing puberty are especially attractive/tasty to maleficaria (demons/monsters of varying power and creepiness). If teens are left in the outside world, maleficaria will kill and sometimes eat these teens. The survival rate is very low, so wizards built the Scholomance in Wales. The idea is that you gather all these teens in one location and the maleficaria are attracted to only one spot. The magic school isn’t in our reality; it’s partially in the void and “above” the real world. The original intention was that the Scholomance’s annual fire cleaning/purge would kill the maleficaria gathered in the bottom. When that happens at the end of every year, the no-longer-so-tasty-to-maleficaria graduating seniors can return safely to the real world.

The problem? After the school was constructed over a century ago, something went wrong with the wiring. Bloodthirsty maleficaria all gather in the bottom-most “graduation” hall (the area between the school and the gates to reality). They can’t be killed by the cleansing fire, and the only way seniors can “graduate” is to fight through this pit of monsters and not die in the process. And yeah, it can get worse than this. Some of the smaller maleficaria sneak up into the school via plumbing/wiring. The students are fending off attacks every second of the day. It’s like the freaking Hunger Games and the survival rate is abysmal (I think a fifth of each freshman class survive the Scholomance. Maybe less. It’s grim as hell, y’all). This is not YA just because it’s about teenagers in a magic school. A Deadly Education is 100% adult fantasy in tone and content. Magic school is hell because magic school is literally trying to murder you for four years. It doesn’t get more adult than that.

You might be wondering: why are parents sending their kids to this fucked up place? It’s because their chances in the outside world are even worse. Believe it or not, the odds that they’ll survive in the Scholomance are higher than waiting to be a delicious maleficaria snack in the real world. There’s additional spoilery revelations that I don’t want to explain right now, but wow. The existence of this fucked-up school makes warped sense, especially in context of the excellent worldbuilding.

So we have our heroine El: a snarky, bitter outcast with no friends or influence. El’s magical affinity is dark and she’s capable of immense evil. Evil that she consistently tries to reign back because she doesn’t want to turn monstrous, but evil nonetheless. She’s also annoyed as hell at Orion Lake, aka Golden Boy and hero of the school for his irritating tendencies to rescue everyone in sight. El thinks that Orion’s heroic deeds are upsetting the balance (not as many students are dying because of him) that keeps the Scholomance operating, and she’s not wrong.

Selfish of me, you’ll say, to be contemplating with murderous intent the hero responsible for the continued survival of a quarter of our class. Well, too bad for the losers who couldn’t stay afloat without his help. We’re not meant to all survive, anyway. The school has to be fed somehow.

Orion is the sweetest cinnamon roll who is weirdly attracted to El’s brutal honesty and refusal to suck up to him. The grumpy/sunshine vibes are INTENSE and I ship them very hard.

I mentioned the worldbuilding, and this part is key: the majority of the book is El’s internal monologue. This might throw readers off. There certainly is action, but wow, like 40% of the book is El explaining the worldbuilding or some magical tidbit in her mind. There’s no dialogue or active action in these sections, just internal explanation. I don’t have an issue with this setup because I like El’s sarcastic narration and grim humor, but I understand some readers might find the lack of action to be unbearable. If Novik fans have a difficult time getting through A Deadly Education, I’d bet that this is the reason why.

Most of my trepidation about reading this book stemmed from the fact that El is biracial Indian and White (her mom is Welsh). I was not enthused when I learned this info prior to the reading of my arc. To be perfectly honest, I am so freaking tired of White authors writing BIPOC point-of-view characters. Forget the question of authenticity or whether it’ll be good rep (these are excellent questions! But I’m setting them aside for now). But I KNOW that traditional publishing is so shitty to BIPOC acquisitions and that publishing’s racist structure creates a payment disparity (see #PublishingPaidMe), it doesn’t seem entirely fair that White authors get to profit off BIPOC main characters when ownvoices authors are struggling to get their stories on the shelf. If it had been anyone but Naomi Novik writing this book, I likely would not have read it because of my deep exhaustion surrounding this issue. But it is Naomi Novik and I love her past two books, so I cautiously decided to read my arc.

I’ll be blunt. I’m Indian-American; obviously I can’t speak for everyone, so these are my opinions. I don’t think the Indian rep is good. I don’t think it’s terrible either. It’s just… as good as a non-Desi author can hope to write, which will usually be meh to me. Nothing struck me as horribly offensive, which was a relief.

My biggest issue, honestly, is the “biracial Asian character is cut off from their Asian family and is raised by their non-Asian parent” shtick that happens over and over again. Because this is a thing, and it’s not my imagination. Obviously “biracial Asian folks who don’t interact with their Asian family” exist in the real world! But when non-Asian authors write Asian protagonists, this particular character decision is so common. It feels like a way to score diversity points while not wanting to get called out for inauthentic portrayal of an Asian family.

At first I didn’t love that El’s Indian family rejects her (her great-grandmother foresees that five-year-old El is capable of great evil and thus needs to be killed ASAP). This scene is uncomfortable to read and I didn’t like how it villainized El’s Indian family. Because of this rejection, El’s mom is the primary influence in El’s childhood. Later it becomes clear that this fear isn’t limited to El’s Indian family; everyone is unnerved by El’s presence (it’s her dark magic affinity and aura). This dark sorceress storyline is nuanced and heartbreaking, so I ended up semi-okay-if-frustrated with the initial rejection by El’s Indian family.

On a more positive note, El learns Indian languages/history (Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit, etc) as a child so she can feel closer to her dead dad and gain an advantage in spellcasting. In the Scholomance, her magical area of study is languages-track. Her language studies (Sanskrit, Hindi, Old English, Latin, Arabic, etc) are central to the story. I also love El’s growing friendship with Aadhya, an Indian-American from New Jersey. This friendship arc saves the rep in a lot of ways; it’s important to me that El has a relationship with other South Asians despite her familial rejection. The student population of the Scholomance is incredibly diverse and I love the secondary characters. This story doesn’t default to a Eurocentric magic system like so many books do.

I’ll keep reading the series because I’m invested in what happens next in the Scholomance (that ending? What the fuck? How am I supposed to wait a whole year?). A Deadly Education might be a slog for some Novik fans because the pacing/internal monologue is exceedingly different from previous books, but it’s worth a try for any reader who cut their fantasy-loving teeth on magic schools. It’s fiercely feminist and shockingly cruel; I would never dream of studying at this vicious magic institution, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to read about it!

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A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

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  1. 1
    Emily says:

    I first encountered this when Novik did an reading at 2018 DragonCon and have been eagerly anticipating this book! I agree that the amount of explanatory narrative is overwhelming. If I didn’t adore El’s angry, intelligent and sensitive voice so much, it would have been a total slog. As it was, though, I enjoyed it.

    The first 60 pages of the book were made available as a teaser. If people are on the fence, I recommend reading those to see if you enjoy the narrative voice, knowing that the knowledge drops don’t ease off as the book progresses.

  2. 2
    HeatherT says:

    I’ve read and re-read all of Naomi Novik’s ELEVEN books (don’t forget the Temeraire series) with a deep and abiding love, and agree that I didn’t like this one quite as much. That said, it got much better towards the end. There are a couple of fundamental issues — the first is that it is established pretty much immediately (like, page one) that El has a capacity for evil that others sense and react to and that because of that she’s never been close to anyone other than her mother. But El compounds that by being constantly prickly, rude and dislikeable even when others are reaching out — it makes sense, reject others before they can reject her — but that much anger can be exhausting to read, especially on top of the “literally everything is dangerous and trying to kill you” bit. The book gets MUCH better later on when El slowly opens up to the possibility of friendship and cooperation and starts differentiating between those who are allies and those who really ARE out to get her. The second big issue is failure to communicate. El never reveals how very powerful she is, even when that would good information to have — there are little hints here and there but no true honesty. And finally, the book doesn’t adequately explain why El doesn’t USE her power when it would help at a pivotal point. All that said, I did like it a lot better towards the end, and ooooooh that cliff hanger!

  3. 3
    chacha1 says:

    This sounds way too dark for me. I read the first of the Temeraire series and absolutely loved it; have the second on my wishlist; but even that (war etc) is a bit much for me now so I am reading romance novels instead. Also a collection of Novik shorts gave me the sads about how the Temeraire story may eventually conclude. So while I truly love her writing, those are all Future Reads. And this one … I do like the premise. Can’t deal with cliffhangers of the implied magnitude. Maybe when the second book is out.

  4. 4
    angstriddengoddess says:

    If I asked you very nicely, could you possibly change “reign back” to “rein back”?
    Pretty please?

  5. 5
    aj says:

    It’s on my hold list at the library but now I may wait until the second book comes out because I’m not really in the mood for a massive cliffhanger this year.

    @chacha – the second Temeraire book involves very little war – its basically a road trip (by sea) to imperial China for diplomatic reasons. The war comes back in focus in the subsequent books however. TBH I loved most of the series but thought the final two books jumped the shark badly, especially the last one which I kind of hated. Most of the people I’ve talked to about them have a similar opinion. Not to spoil anything but the ending isn’t particularly sad or depressing

    You might try Spinning Silver. Uprooted is excellent but the body count is quite high which might not be what you are looking for atm

  6. 6
    MaryK says:

    I think it’s a trilogy now. She said something about it in an interview.

  7. 7
    Msb says:

    I thought the Temeraire books after Victory of Eagles seemed a bit rushed, as if Novik was fulfilling her contract and completing the story arc, but had lost interest a bit. Maybe Uprooted was pressing on her imagination. That said, however, the last books retain The emotional interest and moral complexity that attracted me at the start.

  8. 8
    Greta says:

    I loved this book, stayed up all night reading and then bought the audiobook so I could keep going. I actually found the audio made it easier to absorb El’s inner monologue and the narrator is terrific.

  9. 9
    E.L. says:

    Thank you for the review!

    Love Uprooted and Spinning Silver, so I will definitely give this one a shot. Also, as someone who unambiguously falls on the grumpy side of the spectrum, I’m excited to see more grumpy/sunshine pairings where the lady is the grumpy one.

    I was not aware that the MC is biracial, so thanks also for the heads-up. I share your misgivings about White authors writing non-white MC’s. And the biracial maneuver is definitely a Thing. But I am sympathetic to there not being any good, easy formulas for White writers. They are criticized when everyone in their book is White. And they are criticized when their portrayals of non-white characters are off (which they inevitably are – they lack the range, as Black twitter likes to say). Personally, I think there should be non-white characters when a story is set in a place like New York or Los Angeles. An absence of POC does beg questions. But generally speaking, I’m more relaxed than others on this question in that I’m okay with White authors sticking to White characters if that’s what they know best. As we know, a lot of men don’t write women well. (A lot of women don’t write men well either for that matter …) Not everyone can or should write everything. I certainly would not entrust myself with the task of writing from a trans POV. Better would be for publishers to allocate resources to and promote the work of marginalized authors (not that I’m holding my breath for them to do the right thing). As such, if Novik wants to lean into the White side of her biracial character, I’m okay with that. Could be worse, right?

  10. 10
    Jerrica says:

    @Greta: I agreed that the audiobook makes the story more enjoyable. There’s a vulnerability that the narrator captures perfectly and it makes Ed’s inner dialogue so much more enjoyable. When you listen, it is as if El is sharing with you directly, all her thoughts and feelings, and her hurt and isolation feels more humane than evil. That sense of isolation and then forming friendship also made me think this was in fact a YA novel. I wasn’t put off by the “cliffhanger”…the last sentence is a doozy, but it felt more like an “after credits scene,” opening up speculation about the next book, than an unresolved arc of the story. Overall, it a favorite of Novik’s stories (and I have read all of the Temeraire books too).

  11. 11
    Cori says:

    Excellent Book! The Audiobook is a freaking delight. She really brings El personality alive. And it is hilarious.

  12. 12
    Muse of Ire says:

    I found the book hard to get into, because i found El as prickly and unlikeable on the surface as everyone around her does. But for whatever reason i persisted, and by the third chapter or so i was hooked. Novik really sells El’s issues and motivations, so with that insight i began to understand and respect her choices — mostly. (As the review states, the plot is clearly setting up the need for El to unleash her powers in a big way, and then she just . . . doesn’t.)

    The thing that struck me most was the inversion of the Chosen One trope. El is basically the anti-Chosen One, and it’s taking everything she’s got to hang on and prevent herself from becoming a supervillain. Orion, who *is* The One, eventually serves to demonstrate the personal and societal pitfalls of that role.

    I’m waiting very hard for the next book.

  13. 13
    Leena says:

    Just finished listening to this. The info dumping was almost unbearable. I kept just skipping through it. That said, I did like the book. I loved El’s prickliness. It was justified to me seeing as she’s never done or said anything that justifies people’s reaction to her. Outside of the info dumping, my one other complaint would be that none of the other characters felt fully fleshed out to me. I never got a sense for what literally any of them were actually like. What were there personalities. In my opinion, only Chloe was a little fleshed out and actually had an arc. That said, I’m not sure how to feel about Orion. There’s a scene where Chloe describes what he’s like as a kid….kind of creeped me out. That combined with the ending….

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