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.
I don’t know what happened, but I have seriously never binged an audiobook in one sitting before A Deadly Education. I went on daily evening walk and just got absolutely sucked into this slightly dark yet oddly humorous world of a magic school attempting to murder its own students. Then I went home, cooked a complicated dinner and ate said dinner, all while listening. Hell, this book made me fold my laundry because I wanted something to do as I kept my hands busy. I even ended up doing my Genshin Impact dailies with the audiobook still playing because I was so. damn. invested. This book was just so so good.
What was it that pulled me? Honestly, the first thing was El’s character. El’s destined to become this generation’s greatest “evil” mage according to every factor of her birth and the school, the Scholomance, is determined to push her that way. El, being the edgy teenager she is, has absolutely no desire to follow destiny and instead stubbornly, with no friends, no support, creates her own path. She’s stubborn, she’s rude, and she’s annoying to the point of being unlikable, but somehow that combination of character traits made me just really vibe with her character. The audiobook narrator really does an amazing job selling the emotional points where El feels at her lowest and I think that’s that additional factor that really helped me sympathize with her.
I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for magic school stories so this new take on a potentially hostile one was such a fun twist. Novik does a great job selling its history and engineering work and reasons for hostility (this world is not very pleasant to mages it seems) and truly makes the Scholomance seem to come alive with all its dangers lurking in each corner. I was a little surprised by how heavily Novik went into the politics of the Scholomance, who allies with who, who gets to sit where in the cafeteria, how “safe” is each clique by graduation, and so on, but with the rising trend of Dark Academia aesthetics in publishing, it made sense.
A Deadly Education feels very high school in some ways (though given this is a school of teenagers, that makes sense) but tacked onto the typical popular clique, nerdy clique, losers and reject stereotypes is a layer of commentary on income inequality and privilege. El, who came to this school an outcast and has stayed that way since, has few extremely few resources to draw on and a razor thin margin of error if she wants to leave alive, while the children of major enclaves, or prominent groups of mages, have years and years of resources left behind by previous graduates. These groups are not akin to large fraternities/sororities with years of old exam binders, or clubs made of only the wealthiest and most connected students. Novik explores these politics, and the various ways less privileged students work around (or for) them quite deftly.
Finally let’s address the racism concerns that have made their way through Twitter. Firstly, there’s the comment about dreadlocks that absolutely did not need to be there. Did it make sense in context of the rest of the passage (that long hair would get you killed because there are things that burrow in hair)? Yeah. Does that make it necessary to include? No.
For a bit about my background, I’m second-generation Chinese-American, who grew up in a pretty exclusively white community. Until about 2-3 years ago, I was, culturally, extremely white and had no desire to familiarize myself with the culture from my parents. I have plenty of Chinese-American friends who are still like that. With that background, I could easily relate to El’s “whiteness”, despite being half-Indian (because let’s be honest, El reads pretty white), and I personally see no problem with it. Should there be more representation for halfies who do relate more to their non-white culture? Absolutely. But that should be an issue taken with the entire publishing industry, not on a single book and author. Finally, there were complaints about the Chinese character Yi Liu, who introduces herself as such and has El call her Liu for the rest of the book, which was somehow racist? Yi and Liu can both be last names (albeit Liu is significantly more common). If Western characters aren’t required to specify which name is first and last (and I’ve met plenty of Mark Davids, etc) why much non-White characters have to?
Overall, I rate this a 5/5. If it’s any indicator, I binge-read the audiobook. Between the fun worldbuilding, the deft political navigations, and the magical dark academia themes, I am absolutely in awe with Naomi Novik’s new series.
r/Fantasy 2020-2021 Bingo Squares:
- Novel set in a School or University (hard mode)
- Novel with Epigraphs (hard mode)
- Novel Published in 2020