A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
“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 have to say that going into this book I was nervous. So far I’ve never read a Naomi Novik book I didn’t love, but the plot to this one didn’t seem like it would normally be my cup of tea. So I was worried this would finally be the book of hers that let me down. But I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I expected to!
I’m 100% here for the new trend of dark fantasy with a great sense of humor. This book reminded me a lot of Gideon the Ninth in that the subject matter, the magic, and the location are all very dark, but the writing style was sarcastic and upbeat. The result was delightful and … fun. I laughed, I turned pages, and I ended with a giant “What?!”
Novik is an expert world builder, as well she should be, because at this point she’s got plenty of experience. While some might find her world building slow or boring or complain about too much exposition, I have always loved that she takes the time to explain the nitty gritty details. The more pervasive trend in SF/F right now is to just kind of throw you in as if you live in the world and don’t need it explained to you, and then expecting you to pick things up as you go. And while I enjoy reading books written this way, I often find myself wishing for some explanations. I love when a fantasy book is written in a way that you understand how the magic system works.
Apparently I’m also not tired of magic schools yet.
El was a hoot. She’s got a terrible outlook on the world and genuinely hates everyone, but for some reason this didn’t bother me? It was kind of refreshing to read a fantasy novel where the heroine has a dark side, but isn’t a full-on anti-hero. And the more you read, the more El’s pessimism and hate for other humans make sense. I’m not saying the rude way she treats other people is justified, but you can understand how she came to be so messed up. And at least she knows her cold, calculating way of looking at the world isn’t normal or healthy.
SF/F often addresses social issues and concerns, and A Deadly Education took a good long look at classism. The rich kids come in with every advantage, and use those advantages as leverage to get the poor to do their dirty work, even sacrifice their lives, for them. All of which assures that the rich stay rich and the poor continue to die. But it was really nice to see El forming relationships with those kids, and watching them realize that not everyone has what they have. Watching them start to recognize, even condemn those inequities. At the end, the tone is … HOPEFUL.
The plot moved along well enough, and I was completely invested in every twist and turn. The writing was immersive enough that I was able to connect to the whole thing, even the parts that were pretty dark or bizarre. I couldn’t put it down.
All-around fun, perfect for fans of Gideon the Ninth. I can’t wait to read more from this series!