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REVIEW: The Scholomance by R. Lee Smith

Dear Ms. Smith,

After reading the very compelling Heat, I had to pick up another one of your books. While I mentioned that Olivia was not for me, you commented that I might enjoy The Scholomance. I purchased it and it was highly enjoyable, but not in a fuzzy, feel-good sort of way. I think this was more an admirable, fascinating book more than anything else. I’m not sure I loved it, but I enjoyed the read immensely. The Scholomance is, like your other books, a very multi-layered story. On one level, it’s about friendship in the face of adversity. On another level, it’s a discovery story, and all of this is set amongst a dark, grim, incredibly detailed world. Much like Heat, the blurb and cover of this book simply do not do it justice.

The Scholomance R Lee SmithThe book starts out with Mara. Mara is the caretaker to her mother, who is suffering from bouts of insanity. Her father, a womanizer, is long gone. Mara herself is different from most. She is very pale physically, almost colorless, and possesses extremely strong psychic powers. She can hear the thoughts of others from a very early age, and this has made her very jaded about human nature. She knows that people lie, cheat, and deceive because she can hear their every thought. It has also made Mara a rather proud woman, because she has these gifts and it sets her above others. It also makes her very, very lonely.

Despite being very strong and cold, Mara has one single friend, Connie. Connie is not spectacular in any way, but she adores Mara and wants to be just like her. Connie grows obsessed with the legends of the Scholomance – a school where demons teach others how to use magic. The cost of such a school is that one of every ten students does not make it out alive. Connie doesn’t care, and she goes to the school anyhow. Two long years pass, and then she sends Mara a note – to please come and get her. Mara goes to retrieve her friend, but entering the Scholomance means entering the school, and from there, Mara’s world is turned upside down. The Scholomance is full of a variety of demons who teach different arts. The school is also full of students who have become craven and aggressive in their pursuit of either escape or mastery of the dark arts. Mara must deal with both if she has any hopes of finding Connie. That is just the tip of the iceberg of the story. I feel as if any sort of summary will not do the book justice.

Mara is a hard heroine to relate to, in the beginning. She’s cold and unfeeling. She’s single-minded in her pursuit of Connie, while resenting Connie for sending her on this task. She’s haughty and thinks that others are beneath her. Above all, Mara is careless with others and deliberately ignores their desires if they conflict with her own. I likened Mara to a sociopath heroine, and I think it’s a good descriptor. Mara sees the emotions of others but doesn’t understand them. She uses them against people to get what she needs out of them. She’s not above using her body (and she does repeatedly) in a very clinical, unattached way, simply to get what she wants. It is a means to an end to her, and if that means seducing a man and then betraying him, she has no qualms about it. Sometimes hard, aggressive, self-reliant heroines are hard to find, but Mara is a superb example of a heroine who is not likable or admirable in the slightest, but utterly compelling. I really appreciated the nuances of Mara’s hard, brittle character even if I didn’t like her.

The supporting cast of characters and the school themselves are just as compelling. The world that you built inside the mountain is dark and grim and magical, and the scope is impressive. Every teacher at the school is a unique demon that is completely different from the rest, and the way they deal with the students unique to their different talents. I thought you did a really great job with the demons in that they were never once anything but utterly demonic. They looked unnatural and inhuman. They acted inhuman. The students were there at their whim, and they used them as I imagined demonic tutors might.

The students were equally foul. They dubbed themselves as either ‘lions’ or ‘gazelles’ in how aggressive they were. The feeding tables were described in great, revolting detail, and yet ended up being so very telling of the plot. Mara’s disdain of her fellow students echoes the reader’s distaste for them, and it is not hard to see why each of these people has shown up in a school for black arts. They are not nice people, and they’re not just token awful. There are some truly terrible people in the Scholomance. But this is Mara’s story, and it’s very interesting to watch Mara learn to deal with the other students and interact with them.

Overall, a really fascinating book. It’s very dark and grim, though, so I feel the need to warn people yet again. There is sex in this book (though not as much as Heat) but nearly all of it is not in a loving capacity. As I mentioned earlier, Mara is not above using herself and others to get what she wants. Most of the sex is of questionable consent, and most of the people Mara has sex with are not all that human. There is also a lot of torture and murder in this book. On the other hand, it’s intricately detailed, filled with very different characters, and I found the entire thing hard to put down. You do feel for the characters. You want Mara to succeed in finding her friend, and finding herself in the process.

In short, it’s what I’ve come to expect from a R. Lee Smith book. There’s even a romance, though it’s not the driving focus of the plot. And the ending…I have to say that I teared up. You do endings really well.

Lest this be all glowing praise, this was not a perfect read. It’s very dark. It’s a very dark book about very dark people who do grim and nasty things to each other to further their own wishes. There was not one person in the story I could say I ‘liked’, though I appreciated all the characters and found them compulsively readable. The romance could have had a larger starring role, but because of Mara’s character, I thought it played out the way it had to. The book was also a little long. All your books are. This one is nearly 9000 locations on the kindle. And while I enjoyed the first 50% quite a bit, I felt a little impatience in the second half that things were not progressing faster. That’s not the way you write though. I think your books are more like the slow unfurling of a ribbon, and every page and plot nuance will be necessary down the road. I think it’s more reading fatigue more on my part than a flaw in the story. I’ve read 2.5 of your books in the past few weeks and it’ll probably be a month or two before I try the next, though I’m certainly game for it.

You make me think of Christopher Pike in a sense that I pick up the book expecting one thing and by the end of the journey, it’s a completely different, totally bizarre sort of book. I never know what to expect and I find that I enjoy that quite a bit. Not as romantically compelling as Heat, but just as crazily fascinating for many different reasons. I’m going to recommend this one for those that are looking for a different sort of read and aren’t afraid of darker stories. I have to say that I’m really enjoying your books. An easy B from me.

All Best,

January

PS – I still don’t like your covers but I don’t know that something lurid would fit it better. So perhaps a vague cover is best.

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January Janes

January likes a little bit of everything. She's partial to unique paranormals, erotic romances, contemporary, and YA. She has a fondness for novellas and trying self-published works, though more of those are misses than hits. She still refuses to read anything that smells like literary fiction. January also changes this bio on a regular basis depending on her reading mood.

26 Comments

  1. Rhian
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 04:20:38

    I finished this book a few days ago, and completely agree with your review. Regarding the sex and consent – I’ve also just read R. Lee Smith’s The Care and Feeding of Griffins, and The Scholomance is by far the more consensual book. Mara pretty much engineers or allows all her encounters (apart from one scene, I felt like she was in control the whole time) and feeding her own desires seems to be a pretty big motivator. Rape happens, but to other people and mostly off-screen. In TCAFOG, by comparison, every sex scene but one is graphic rape/abuse, with an innocent and helpless heroine kept somewhat in the dark by her supposed protectors, and I found it disturbing enough that I had to skip sections – although, as ever, I think R. Lee Smith’s writing is superb. (I would be really interested to hear what you think of TCAFOG, incidentally.)

    The only thing that really niggled at me in this book was the use of the words cum/cumming – I know it’s a small point, but I find them really off-putting. (I know, of all the things to pick!)

  2. Anon
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 05:55:51

    It’s such a shame that so many of this author’s books seem preoccupied with rape and the abuse of women – much of it verging strongly on the meant-to-be-arousing side of things. The writing is very good, but it’s just not enough, for me. The content isn’t rape fantasy, or non-consent roleplay, and it doesn’t even give me a sense of female ownership of a specific kink. It just comes across like those awful LOTR fanfics about orcs gang raping elves and the like.

    Shame, too, that the content of the other books puts me off reading this one.

  3. Diane
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 06:34:48

    I’ve never even heard of this author, I’ll look her up but only out of curiosity, I’m not interested in reading this kind of content.

  4. DA_January
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 07:53:38

    @Rhian: Rhian, I have not read that one yet. I’ll give it a try eventually but I do think it’ll be a few weeks before I pick up more of her books.

  5. DA_January
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 07:55:19

    @Anon: You’re right that there’s a lot of brutality in her books. I think it’s because the author is grimly determined to show just how awful things can get for characters. There is no sugar coating. I guess that is why I appreciate it even if it’s horrible. The gloves are off in these books, and because of that, they’re so different. They’re still hard reads to get through, even if they are compelling.

  6. DA_January
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 07:55:46

    @Diane: It is definitely not for everyone.

  7. Ruthie
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 08:55:57

    Your reviews of this author have made me so curious, and now my curiosity is winning out over my concern about the content. I’ve just bought a copy of this one — should be interesting, at the very least!

  8. DA_January
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 08:59:17

    @Ruthie: You will have to let us know what you thought of it when you are done.

  9. Dabney Grinnan
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 10:31:49

    Some of the words you used to describe Mara are words I’d use to describe Kane, the anti-hero of Heat. Do you see them as at all similar?

  10. Kathryn
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 11:21:37

    I read Heat after your review and wondered which R Lee Smith book I should try next. Heat led me down paths of brutality I won’t usually follow because it also (rather forcefully) led me to think about parenting styles, if there could ever be an ethical treatment of livestock, the role of culture in the emotions we experience, and even how much of my disgust over the brutality was lip service to cultural expectations. Do you think The Scholomance will prompt similar pondering?

  11. Anne V
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 14:43:30

    I finished Scholomance yesterday, and am now about 2/3rds through TCAFOG, and I agree with Rhian – Scholomance is pretty consensual, especially compared to Heat. Mara is not cosy or loving or interested in pleasing anyone except herself. She’s straightforward, focused and effective, which make her good to have as an ally, but she is not nice or temperamentally attractive in a romance way, and so she’s an unusual heroine for a romance.

    These books are *long* – but they’re so coherent and tightly written that I can’t identify stuff (scenes, characters, etc…) that feel extraneous. Also, they’re stressful to read – I really can’t stop reading until I’m finished, because the stories are compelling and the internal tension is real. If you don’t read fast and you’re not good with suspense (I do find these suspenseful), start reading on a weekend, so that you aren’t stunned at work. I suspect I”ll make my way through all of Ms. Smith’s work, with breaks for kinder gentler fare.

    I am trying to puzzle out why the violence, the sexual violence in particular, in these books doesn’t trouble me or seem cold. I don’t enjoy it, it’s not remotely titillating for me, but it’s so integrated into the characters that it seems inevitable and critical to the story. This is markedly different from my experience of a number of other writers, whose work would probably be shelved in the same areas/pop up under the same search terms but is considerably less violent and feels shallower and somehow calculated w/r/t the reader. Some of that is, I’m sure, to do with quality of writing, but not all, and I don’t have a handle on where the line is.

    @Kathryn, yes, I think so. Different paths, certainly – for me, I wound up thinking a lot about prioritizing community vs. individual needs, what friendship is, my own attachment to/valuation of functionality in my life, the definition of education, volition vs. compulsion, and obligation as an excuse, particularly for woman.

  12. Ridley
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 15:30:12

    Scholomance? In Western Plaguelands? I ran that just the other day with my druid.

  13. Anon
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 15:37:49

    @DA_January: I appreciate a lack of sugar coating, and books about grim reality. But to me, those books don’t feel like that. They feel as though they’re trying to be erotic, and the eroticism is all about brutalising women. They’re like Laurann Dohner’s books, only with any flicker of consent taken away – tho obviously better written. And TBH, I find even Dohner’s books problematic. I’m just not a fan of the mate mate mate big alpha male I’ll do what I want with you puny human female trope taken to its nth degree.

    And thanks, for the response. I was worried it might come across like I’m trying to shame people for liking this book, which is not my intent at all. As much as I hate this fantasy myself, I’m for the celebration and exploration of any fantasy we women might like to explore.

  14. DA_January
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 15:40:25

    @Dabney Grinnan: I don’t know that Kane and Mara are alike. I think Kane’s was an innate, cultural view of humans. He did not find them to be anything but pets or toys until Raven proved him wrong, to an extent. I believe Mara’s coldness and sociopath tendences were learned. The book indicated that she started out normal but learned early on the true meaning of how people acted.

  15. DA_January
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 15:41:39

    @Kathryn: I don’t know. I thought it was a very interesting character study for Mara more than anything else. I’m not sure if you’ll have the same reaction to this as you did Heat.

  16. DA_January
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 15:43:57

    @Anne V: I think the sex in Heat (toward the end) became titillating, but I didn’t feel that Scholomance ever went in that direction. There was sex included, but I did not feel any of it was particularly romantic or even erotic, and it could not be, in the context of the story. Having it be sexy would have undone the story.

  17. DA_January
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 15:48:09

    @Anon: That is ok – both Jane and I had a hard time coming to terms with liking Heat. It was filled with terrible things but the story was still enjoyable. This book is not sexy and does not glamorize rape. The heroine is the one in control of most of the scenes, but she does not approach them from a sexual point of view as much as control, which is why I tagged it how I did. This one was not a sexy story. It was a bizarre, disturbing story with a romance at the end, but it was not a sexy read.

    I had this discussion with another friend, as why the rape in this book (or Heat) is okay and it’s not in other books. I think because it’s not treated as erotic as much as it is to show that these characters have no boundaries. I think that is what I and the other readers are responding to. You genuinely have no idea what will happen next, and I appreciate that.

  18. Anthea Lawson
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 17:00:07

    @Ridley: lol, that was my first thought, too…

  19. None
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 18:41:17

    Looks like I’m the lone voice of dissent here which is surprising because I’m not particularly squeamish about violence. I ended up DNFing Heat 80% of the way thru. Just wasn’t comfortable with how nauseous and grossed out I felt every time I put down my e-reader, almost like I was slimed by it. It’s a shame actually that I couldn’t finish because it was REALLY well written and I’d like to know how it ends, because everyone seems to love the ending! (Anyone want to spoil me?)

    I do want to thank you for reviewing these as they’re quality writing and storytelling even if not my thing. In terms of their aesthetic they remind me also of a Stephen R Donaldson series called the Gap. May want to check that out if you like this kind of grim futuristic survivalist tale.

    I had this discussion with another friend, as why the rape in this book (or Heat) is okay and it’s not in other books. I think because it’s not treated as erotic as much as it is to show that these characters have no boundaries.

    I guess I don’t feel this way because the sex scenes seemed too graphic and numerous just to function as evidence that the characters have no boundaries. Actually I think the sex scenes in Heat are written like non-consent erotica. (Nothing wrong with that, just sayin.)

  20. Janine
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 19:57:07

    @None: I read the first book in Donaldson’s Gap series many years ago and boy it was disturbing and the characters so unlikable (something I hardly ever say since I generally prefer flawed protagonists). I didn’t stick with it after Book 1 because it was just so unsettling. If Heat is like it, I probably shouldn’t read it.

  21. Courtney Milan
    Feb 25, 2012 @ 16:27:01

    @Janine: I couldn’t handle Donaldson and I could handle Heat.

    I enjoy these books, but I really don’t want to. I mean, I *really* don’t want to. I hated the ending of the Scholomance, because I felt like she ended up with the wrong…uh…the wrong…Man? For lack of a better word. It was like the opposite of the HEA: a SEA. (Sadly Ever After.) It pissed me off.

    I enjoyed TCAFOG, and couldn’t get through Book 2.

  22. DA_January
    Feb 26, 2012 @ 08:58:03

    @Courtney Milan: I am likewise – I did not like Donaldson but enjoyed these.

    I did feel like she ended up with the right ‘man’ but only because of the position of power. I know the one you are thinking of, and I think he was portrayed as too easily controlled by her for him to be the correct mate for Mara. I suppose that is why I felt she ended up where she had to be.

  23. Janine
    Feb 28, 2012 @ 20:11:52

    @Courtney Milan: Thanks, I really appreciate this feedback. I only saw your comment and January’s now or I would have responded sooner.

    @DA_January: This convo about who the heroine should have ended up with is really interesting but if I try one of her books it will probably be Heat. Though I still haven’t worked up the nerve to read the excerpt. It seems like a lot of readers enjoyed it and are grateful for your review, though.

  24. Mlle. X
    Mar 20, 2012 @ 16:38:34

    Well, January…I was thrilled when you reviewed R. Lee Smith’s HEAT & thought you did a great job of talking about the book in a way that highlighted its strengths and warned away the ones who wouldn’t like it.

    It’s also one of those books when you feel better that you’re not the only one to read and like it.

    I think your review of Scholomance was on the generous side. I just posted my review on Amazon & Goodreads but…it’s got all the problems that I expect from self-pubbed books and do NOT expect from R. Lee Smith. Lots of excess verbiage. A Mary Sue for a heroine. No real conflict. I was really saddened to read it.

    I’ve also gotten through three of the four Arcadia books. I think the third one is subject to the same flaws as this one.

  25. Taylor
    Mar 25, 2012 @ 03:38:45

    Heat was the first book I read by R Lee Smith, and after getting past the unexpected start I became engrossed, and despite its length I never wanted it to end. I vowed to read every piece of work Smith had written. Well, let’s just say I’m glad I started with Heat because had I started elsewhere my head would not have exploded.

    I couldn’t finish Olivia, there wasn’t enough emotional depth and insight into the character’s thoughts which created the balance in Heat. Instead there was just dark creepiness and I could no longer insert myself into the story or empathize with anyone. Once I accepted this wasn’t going to change I did not delve any further into the 800+ page nightmare that was Olivia’s tale.

    But my devotion to Heat was still burning bright so I decided to try another installment: The Care and Feeding of Griffins. I LOVED it. I was thrilled it was part of a series because I didn’t fear my time with the characters was coming to an end too soon… but alas, I would rather end things on a high note than draw them out to the bitter end.

    Unlike the first book, which I didn’t realize was over until there were no more words to read, the second book seemed to drag on and on and on. I forced myself to finish it in the hopes that the third would be worthwhile- but I have yet to start it. My reason for delay is that most people who didn’t like the second book (like me) were disappointed with the third book and even more disappointed by the forth. Do I really want to force myself deeper into a tunnel I know will be a dead end? Maybe I should I should just cut my losses and run…

    However, there is still one more book my R Lee Smith that I have in my sights, The Scholomance. The reviews show that people who loved Heat also loved this book, and I miss reading a book like Heat. I refuse to believe an author capable of producing such a story is a one hit wonder. She has the ability to capture the humanity in the most surreal settings and situations and draw every possible emotional response from the reader before the story is through… I want to experience that again! Fingers are crossed for The Scholomance.

  26. Ruthie
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 18:59:00

    Finally got to this one on my TBR pile. I have to agree with Mlle. X — January’s review struck me as a bit on the generous side.

    The question I found most interesting while reading was that of whether the heroine is or is not “heartless.” I actually didn’t mind her coldness at first, but as the book goes on, she moves more and more toward sociopathic behavior, and I think the book poses the question of whether this is or is not a good thing. The narrator, too, struggles with the question. But in the end, I don’t think the novel resolves it — or resolves any kind of arc for the character. I was surprised to read that January teared up at the ending; it left me cold.

    I did like the sort of Olympian amorality of the demons, and the sex (which is only rarely even a little bit titillating, but is always rather interesting) seemed part and parcel of that.

    And while I think a good editor might have cut this book down by a good 20 percent to improve the pacing, it is very well written and edited.

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