Book: “A Deadly Education” by Naomi Novik
Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, September 2020
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+
Book Description: 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.
Review: Naomi Novik has quickly become a must-read author for me. After this book, she’s pretty much a must-buy author (I only have maybe 5 of those, so that says something, I think!). But, still, when requesting this book, what I’d read from her had been both of her fairytale retellings and the first several of her Napoleonic wars/dragon historical fantasy series. This didn’t sound remotely like either of those, instead being billed as a modern, more grim, “Harry Potter” style boarding school story. But man, Novik can do anything, and my trust is now fully earned, no matter how strange the book description is!
Scholomance is technically a school. There are no teachers and students are on their own to make classes and finish homework, sure. But that’s only half, and arguably the less important half, of what this school provides. Instead, it offers magical kids the best chance they have of surviving their juvenile years. Sure, their odds are still pretty darn bad in the school, but better than the next to nothing they have outside. El’s chances have been even worse from the start. Yeah, she has the raw power, but she seems to repel people for some reason. And in a place where forming alliances is a necessary survival tactic, that’s not good. But here, in her second to last year at the school, staring down the barrel of a final year full of even more likely death, El begins to uncover secrets about not only the school, but herself, and the boy who has been roaming around annoyingly playing savior to all this entire time.
I adored everything about this book, so it’s kind of hard to think of where to start when reviewing it. It’s also so totally unique, interesting, and complicated that it’s hard to find the middle ground between reviewing important aspects of the story and not spoiling the fun for new readers. There’s just so much good stuff to unpack!
I guess I’ll start with the world-building itself. The book description has a tough job trying to describe what Scholomance really is, and, as you can see, I probably struggled too in my own summary. That’s because it’s so complicated and well-constructed that it’s almost impossible to really give a broad overview. Novik seems to have thought out every intricate detail for this magical place, from how the cafeteria works, to the menacing library, to the simplest of things, like how the school assigns and monitors homework and what happens if students fall behind. And it’s all just so creative! I can’t think of a single other fantasy story that has anything like the place Novik has thought up here. And that’s saying something, I think, in a genre that is becoming more crowded by the day (especially YA that has a tendency to become trope-ridden and bogged down in certain themes every few years).
One of the most impressive aspects of all of this that, being as complicated and detailed as it all is, our narrator is given a heavy load of information to be handing off to readers. There’s a significant portion of the first half of the book that is largely devoted to detailing all of these little aspects. It would have been so easy for it to have felt like info-dumping or to have dragged down the pacing and plot of the story. But, for one thing, the information being provided is just too interesting on its own to feel bored by. And secondly, our narrator had a fantastic voice from the start that is strong enough to carry this type of detail-ridden load.
El is everything I like in a narrator: snarky, consistently characterized, yet vulnerable in ways that we (and she) discover throughout the story. From the book description, I was kind of expecting some type of tired anti-hero story or quasi-villain plot line for her, but it’s really nothing like that. Sure, her powers are destructive and there’s this pesky doomsday-esque prophesy lingering around her, but she’s just as skeptical of all that nonsense as the reader wants to be. El’s story, here, is not only finding acceptance with some key friends around her, but in accepting what she has to offer. On one hand, she can be overly confident, but on the other, we see her realize her own values and where her personal lines are between survival and standing up for some moral greater good.
And to balance her out, of course, we have a “Chosen One.” This friendship was everything! Both El and Orion’s characters play perfectly off each other. She, stand-offish, uninterested, and, again, snarky. He, bumbling, clueless of his affect on people, and obnoxiously heroic. I loved everything about this friendship and the slow build to sort of romance that it comes to towards the end.
It’s also clear, here, where the comparisons to “Harry Potter” are coming from. Orion Lake is definitely a response to Harry Potter and all of the other “chosen” heroes we see in fantasy fiction. Novik has said that “Spinning Silver” was essentially her “yelling” at the “Rumpelstiltskin” fairytale, and that this would be her yelling at “Harry Potter.” Comparisons to “Harry Potter always make me nervous. For one thing, I love Harry Potter so, for me, a book being compared to it is either going to be a massive let-down of trying to copy something that shouldn’t be copied. Or it’s going to be some type of “response” piece that spends more time criticizing another book series than in being its own thing. Luckily, this falls right in the middle and does it perfectly.
You can definitely see where Novik is making a point about the type of “chosen one” story that Harry Potter tells, but, while she does touch on some of the obvious themes, she also deep dives into a lot of aspects of this type of storyline that one doesn’t often think about. There’s a strong focus on inequality and injustice, but it’s approached through angles and perspectives that are unique to this world. The themes, of course, carry over, but it stays true to the fantasy world it is and the types of justice and injustice that would be inherent to it. It’s left to the reader to transcribe these thoughts onto our own world and our own experiences of injustice within society.
This review has already gotten pretty long, and I could go on and on. But, in this case, I almost feel like the less said the better! There’s so much great stuff to discover here that I don’t want to spoil any more of it! Needless to be said, my copy is already pre-ordered, and I highly recommend any and all fantasy fans to get their hands on this book ASAP!
Rating 10:Breaking fantasy walls that I didn’t know even exited! Simply fantastic!
“A Deadly Education” is a new title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “Non JKR Magic School Novels.”
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