Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Theme: Opposites Attract
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!