Book: “The School of Good and Evil” by Soman Chainani
Publication Info: HarperCollins, May 2013
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.
This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good & Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.
But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…?
Review: This book seemed to hit a peak a few years ago with everyone raving about it, and finally now, years later, I’ve finally gotten to it. I don’t read a lot of middle grade fiction, but this one, with its fun premises and, I’ll admit, very catchy cover seemed worth checking out!
This book is a bit tricky to review, now that I’m getting to it. I finished reading the book about a week ago and am only now writing the review. And that one week, I think, has made an impact on my opinion of the book. Either way, ultimately, I did very much enjoy the story. But with the extra time, I feel there are a few things that were a bit clunky and problematic about it.
I breezed through this story, guys. I mean, fast. Its biggest strengths are the exact things that particularly appeal to me: very creative world building, character-based stories, and a strong dash of wit. I loved all the ties to fairytales in this book, both the direct reference to Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast and others, as well the way it poked fun at the generalities of these stories. In the school of Good, princesses must learn how to speak to animals and wait patiently for their princes to save them. In the school of Evil, witches must learn how to curse household items like apples and hairpins and uglify themselves to scare off heroes and heroines. The schools and their history and connection to fairytales were so much fun. Much of it was parody, but parody with heart.
There were also a lot of great characters in this story, other than just Agatha and Sophie, who I’ll get to in a moment. There was Tedros, the most popular prince in school, and son of the famed Arthur and Guenevere who struggles with his mother’s legacy and its impact on his relationship with the women around him. Sophie’s witch roommates, Hester, Dot, and Anadil are each great, particularly Hester whose badassery knows no bounds. The teachers for both school reminded me a lot of the professors from the Harry Potter novels. They are all quirky and teach particular classes. This is one area of the story that I wish there had been more of. The few classroom scenes we had were some of my favorites in the whole story.
And then there are Agatha and Sophie. There was so much I loved about these two. Their friendship is complicated not only by the fact that they are in different schools, but by the very nature of their own beings and their struggles to define themselves. Poor Agatha with her broken down self-esteem. And poor Sophie, trying so hard without realizing the huge mistakes she’s making at almost every step. Neither are simple characters, and I appreciated the time that the author gave to these two and the attention to the difficulties of growing up and recognizing the power we all hold to mold who we want to be.
Packed into this romp of a fairytale are a lot of messages, and some of them are handled better than others. As I said before, there is a lot of parody going on here. This, of course, opens the door for the parody to go unrecognized and for the more harmful aspects of some of these messages to stand as true. The author does a lot of work to speak to the fact that actions speak louder than looks, to the power of goodness and love, and many other very important points. But due to binary set-up of the story and the parallels placed between goodness/beauty and villainy/ugliness, it’s possible for some unwanted aspects to slip through. Ultimately, I feel that if the story is read in the tone that it is meant, much of this comes through very clearly. But this book might not be for everyone, due to this.
While I was able to get on board with many of these points, there was one that was a sticking point, even for me. I love stories about girls’ friendships, and at its core, that it was this is. There is a lot to be said for forgiveness and understanding in friendship, but there were a few too many times where this line was crossed far to completely to be simplified in this way. It is the same as romantic relationships, in this way: at a certain point, if you are being actively hurt by another person, that person is not your friend, even if they truly do have good feelings toward you. So, while I love the message of Agatha saving her friend through sheer will, forgiveness, and kindness, the story also, unfortunately, sets up a bad example of friendships in general. Through large portions of this story, this is not a healthy friendship. And, while we can sympathize for Sophie, it should not stand as an example that just because we (or Agatha) love a friend/boyfriend, that we should tolerate bad treatment with the hope that they will get better.
This last point is what has stuck with me through this last week of building up to this review. I sped through this book and it was wildly entertaining as I was reading. But with distance comes more clarity, and there were problematic aspects of it, as I mentioned. That said, I will definitely continue on with the series. However, I will keep my eyes open for how some parts of it are handled in the future, most notably, this friendship.
Rating 7: Really great world-building and a lot of great lessons about self-worth and self-esteem; unfortunately, lessened by some questionable portrayals of healthy friendships.
Find “The School of Good and Evil” at your library using Worldcat!