JOINT REVIEW: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
Jennie, Sirius and I (along with Jayne), reviewed Naomi Novik’s last book, Spinning Silver, together. Our roundtable discussion was a lot of fun and the three of us decided to reunite for Novik’s recent release, the first book in her Scholomance series, A Deadly Education.
Janine: A Deadly Education takes place in a world that exists alongside our own. Wizards and witches live in our society, but when they are in their high school years they fall prey to mals (short for malaficaria), magical creatures that kill the wizards to absorb their magical energy (mana). In their teens, as they are coming into that power, kids with magical abilities are especially desirable to mals and that makes it hard for young wizards to survive. To help them, adult wizards have put together the scholomance.
The scholomance is a boarding school situated in a pocket of the void (a dimension that borders our world). It’s a school with no teachers; instruction is automated by means of magical spells. The school is warded against mals, but some still get through. If you skip school or don’t do your homework it can cost you your life, since without learning spell skills and building alliances with peers you won’t last. On average you only have a 25% chance of graduating, but it’s still a much better chance than you’d have to survive your teen years outside the school.
The power to cast magic comes in two kinds. Mana can only be obtained by working hard at something. Malia is derived by killing animals or people to absorb their life energy. Using malia makes one into a malificer and malificers who kill other people eventually pay for their dark power with their lives.
Most students at the scholomance can cheat, sort of, by siphoning only a little malia from something small like ants or from inanimate objects. But for Galadriel “El” Higgins, a half-Indian, half-Welsh junior year student at the scholomance, cheating is not an option. The nature of El’s ability is such that she is bound to siphon from something big, even if she doesn’t intend to. So she restricts herself to mana.
The problem El has, well, one of many problems, is that she’s antisocial and unpleasant enough, as well as, to all outward appearances, not gifted enough in magic, to interest other kids. Alliances are needed not only to survive and graduate but also to find a position in the outside world after graduation, preferably at an enclave, a powerful community of wizards and witches who stay safe behind magic walls. To form an alliance or even better, win a coveted spot at an enclave, you have to be good at schmoozing and politics. El sucks at both. She gives off a stay-away vibe and some kids mistake her for a malificer.
Which is not so far from the truth. El hasn’t yet killed anyone, but when she was a baby, her great-grandmother had a vision that someday she would commit mass murder and destroy all the enclaves. It’s not true that El isn’t gifted in magic. The other students don’t know it, but she’s enormously gifted. It’s just that her gifts are all for killing.
The book begins when El decides that she had to kill Orion Lake. Orion is a rich, white, privileged boy from the New York enclave but he’s also something of a hero. He kills mals not just when they attack him or the other kids from his enclave, but when they attack anyone. El wants to get into an enclave—it would ensure her mother’s survival as well as her own—but to do that she has to demonstrate her value to the enclave kids. Which she can’t do because Orion kills the impressive mals that attack her before she can do it herself.
When, after the latest such encounter, Orion asks her why she didn’t siphon energy to defend herself, El is annoyed enough to demonstrate what her siphoning ability looks like. She does not kill Orion, only demonstrates that she can, but that is enough to lead him to suspect her of being a malificer. And since a girl name Luisa recently bit the dust at the hands of an unknown malificer, Orion begins to trail after El whenever she goes to protect other kids from her.
It’s not until the real malificer attacks El and Orion, does, in actuality, save her life, that the dynamic between them starts to shift. The attack leaves El weak and drained, so Orion continues to accompany her, now to keep her safe. The other kids at the school begin to suspect that El and Orion are dating. And that makes them willing, even eager, to tolerate El, if it means they could snag Orion for their own alliance or enclave. If only El didn’t want to be liked for herself….
So… I described the premise of this book to a friend as a reversed Harry Potter. There is a magic boarding school but it’s not a kind and caring place; instead of wise, sweet-natured teachers, we have monsters that kill kids. There is an unusually powerful kid / central character but rather than being well-liked, she’s rejected by others. In place of the shy, sweet hero, we have a blunt, bitter heroine. And there is a prophecy about the heroine but it’s not that she will save the world; rather that she’ll be an epic villain.
For me this was as much a drawback as a strength, especially at first. The central plot driver, the competition among teens to survive, is a tired trope in YA. The Hunger Games launched a thousand of these books and I did not want to read one more. The prophecy trope is even more worn. Also, I didn’t like El much in the beginning.
Jennie: The Harry Potter and Hunger Games parallels were strong with this book, though I don’t think it was derivative. I just think those series were so influential in the YA reading world that comparisons are inevitable.
Sirius: So I wanted to be very clear from the beginning. As much as I liked Uprooted, you guys probably remember that I had much more mixed reaction to Spinning Silver. I wanted to review A Deadly Education because I enjoy reviewing with you and because I love fantasy and I am a huge fan of Harry Potter and I was curious what kind of homage Naomi Novik would pay it. What I am trying to say is that I decided to give her another try because I really wanted to like it, but at this point in time I feel like I gave her work enough trying and I am very much done.
Janine, you mentioned not liking El in the beginning. I did not like her for vast majority of the book and found her to be a little more tolerable in the last third of the book, but that’s about it. I found myself hoping she would get eaten by the mal and hopefully as soon as possible.
Janine: For me El’s snark read as too bitter and angry to be funny in the first 20%. It took me a while to realize that her bark was worse than her bite and that she was, despite her abrupt rudeness to others, lovable. I think that’s something Naomi Novik does well, one of the things that made Spinning Silver marvelous for me. She is really good at taking an armored, prickly, even cold character and then getting us to see why we should care.
Sirius: I could not make myself care for her, for the most part anyway. I mean, she is of course trying to survive and not to be eaten by creatures that are constantly attacking them, but I don’t know, her reactions were just so off putting to me that I was not ready to forgive it even for the matter of survival. I am still not sure for example why instead of being annoying asshole to everybody she did not make herself known as a powerful witch right from the beginning.
Jennie: I actually liked El from the start. I think maybe I had the subconscious sense that her character trajectory would make her more sympathetic even when she didn’t outwardly seem so.
Janine: People had rejected her all her life, including her own family when she was five. Her rudeness and abrasiveness were ways she protected herself against further rejection. The biggest turning point for me where El is concerned came around 40% in, though.
I love that Novik doesn’t redeem El, she reframes her.
Jennie: I really thought she was a great heroine.
Janine: Let’s talk about pacing a bit. I guessed that Orion would find El attacked by the malificer so it wasn’t until that happened at 20% that the pacing picked up and the book started to surprise me. This coincided with when El’s relationship with her schoolmates started to change. The book got more and more engaging from there and I sped through the last 60%.
There were still issues. The worldbuilding is cumbersome, harder to visualize and in need of more explaining than the worlds in Temeraire, Uprooted and Spinning Silver. The magic system and the world lend themselves well to plot conflicts, but good chunks of the book are devoted to explaining how they work. El’s snark helps make the infodumps entertaining but it still feels like a lot.
Jennie: It took me a while to realize that the constant (I mean, it felt like every page) descriptions of various mals trying to attack El or others was a feature and not a bug. Like, I thought it was a set-up that went on too long, but it really was just part of the rhythm of the story. I think maybe about 40% in I accepted that and then it didn’t bother me anymore.
Sirius: I got to the point when I was just counting – oh another mal, can we get on with the story please?
Janine: Half the time I tuned out the mal descriptions. I would have preferred to know in more detail what the school looked like. I visualized it as industrial and metallic but I have no idea where I got that from.
Sirius: I *hated* the worldbuilding. I totally agree with Janine that it felt like reversed Harry Potter, but the world building was so lacking to me, that it just felt like Harry Potter fan fiction. It is as if the author expected me to fill out the blanks in the world which we already know even if it is a much darker world where the school eats the students.
Janine: I didn’t think it was anything like Hogwarts, but I agree with your “fill in the blanks” description. The worldbuilding felt hollow. I haven’t had that issue in her other books.
Jennie: For some reason I perceived it a little differently – I felt like it was my fault that I had trouble getting a clear picture of the school. Partly that’s because I often get confused by physical descriptions (spatial relations are not my strong suit) and partly because when I really like a book I tend to make excuses for shortcomings.
Sirius: By the way, I am still not sure why parents actually send their kids to this school. Actually let me rephrase it – at least non enclave kids are supposedly safer here (could have fooled me, but whatever, fine the attacks outside school are much worse, let’s leave it at that – but parents can help them there no). But basically El says at some point that nothing would hurt them if she gets into enclave right? So why would enclave parents agree for their kids to go there if the walls of the enclave are going to protect them? Made no sense to me.
Sirius: And what else is happening in this world?
Janine: Yes! Agreed. I wonder if the outside world will eventually be shown in greater detail in later books. I liked the stuff about El’s mother; it gave us a glimpse of that, but more would have been better.
I also had an issue with the backstory; the students’ first two years at the school are glossed over; it was like there had been absolutely no development of friendships and other relationships during their freshman and sophomore years. When I reflected on that it was hard to make it fit.
Jennie: I think that’s a fair criticism; maybe it didn’t bother me too much for two reasons. One is that I find this common in this sort of story, where the characters have the history of being in the same space long before the book starts. I just sort of have to accept that the story starts where it starts. The other was that I can believe (aside from the external forces that set things in motion) that it would take El a good two+ years to get to the point where she could develop relationships. She was very closed-off, for good reason.
Janine: A third issue is one I didn’t pay enough attention to until the recent controversy—the representation. I didn’t notice all the issues other readers have mentioned. There is a line about dreadlocks attracting mals that read as potentially offensive and that made me uneasy.
Other things that have been brought up didn’t register with me. For example, some readers have called out the half-Indian heroine’s dirtiness and I can absolutely see why that might offend. My impression was that most scholomance loners regardless of background were in the same boat as El—if you had no allies to watch your back while you showered, you couldn’t afford to take the risk of showering often. My thoughts aren’t the relevant ones here, though. I’m not qualified to judge the representation.
Novik has apologized. It reads like a genuine apology to me but others may differ there too.
Jennie: I noticed the dreadlocks line and raised my brows at it; it just seemed clumsy in that it was easy to misread even though I didn’t think it was at all meant to be offensive.
I didn’t have an issue with the mention of El being dirty, because I believe it was only mentioned once and framed as being an issue of El not having friends or an enclave to protect her, so relating it to her ethnicity didn’t even occur to me. But I agree that my feelings on it are not germane.
I did think Novik made some good points relating El’s outsider status as starting when she was surrounded by “mundanes” (as non-magical people are called) in Wales in her early years. She was used to being seen as “different” because she was half-Indian. When she started at the Scholomance, that wasn’t an issue, but she found that she was still an outsider for different reasons.
Janine: There are also some wonderful touches to the story. Orion and El’s friendship is sweet and funny; they complement each other well. On the surface, they seem completely opposite; Orion is the scholomance’s most adulated student and El its biggest outcast. El is a cynical and suspicious; Orion is almost gullible and views his schoolmates with forgiving eyes. Orion comes from a wealthy enclave; El and her mother live in a Welsh yurt (don’t ask).
But in both cases, the attitudes of the other students toward them aren’t based on personal knowledge. The other kids love Orion for what he can do. They don’t try to get to know El and they shun her not just for her grouchiness but also because they don’t think she can be of help to them.
Jennie: The funny thing about Orion’s status as a hero was that at first I pictured him as sort of a Big Man on Campus because he’s so universally adored by the other students (except El!). But as the book goes on, we find that he’s small in stature and has a very awkward personality. It felt like an unexpected reversal – not quite swan to ugly duckling, but something along those lines.
Janine: I visualized him as skinny but average height at least—he hung his arm around El’s neck in the last scene and she is tall.
Sirius: I visualized him as Harry Potter.
So El and Orion have common ground. It takes El a while to see it, or to believe that Orion appreciates her. I liked that even after they started hanging out, Novik took her time, laid a foundation for their friendship scene by scene.
Jennie: I think I shipped them right away, in part because El so desperately needed friends and Orion was a potentially powerful one.
Janine: I loved the rapport that El cautiously develops with Aadhya and Liu, two other girls in her class. Both Liu and Aadhya had layers and showed new facets over the course of the book. Aadhya, who is Indian, is one of the few people who does not reject El outright even in the beginning. She’s also funny and savvy about how things work at the school. Of all the people around El, Aadhya is the one who understands El’s social situation most clearly. Liu, who is Asian, has a quieter personality with an unexpected (considering that El has pegged her for a malificer) soft side.
Janine: By the end of the book I loved El to bits. Her story was, after the first quarter, entertaining and exciting. Her character arc was both touching and triumphant. The second half was so exciting that reading it felt like riding an amusement park ride. I liked the last 60% of the book so much that I read it three times.
Jennie: Reading the second half of the book reminded me that while I certainly don’t seek out action/adventure stories, well-told ones absolutely thrill me.
To get back to the worldbuilding for a minute, I did have some lingering questions about the magical world that the characters inhabit.
The scholomance is built to protect the kids, the systems that keep it from being very dangerous (if not so dangerous as the outside world) break down, and…then? Nothing? There’s a description of one component (I think it’s one component but I’m shaky on some of the concepts) that wizard teams went in several times to try to fix; most of them didn’t survive and nothing got fixed. But with the situation being as dire as it seems on the inside, I don’t quite get why the status quo is maintained for decades.
Janine: I often struggle with grading books and this is no exception. On the one hand the book had significant flaws, especially early on, but on the other hand I read the last 60% three times. I’m going to give it a B+.
Jennie: I feel even more enthusiastic about the book in retrospect (the ending being stronger than the beginning tends to have that effect on me) and I’m super-excited for the sequel, so I have no problem giving this an A-.
Sirius: C-, barely. There is very little I enjoyed sadly and won’t be reading the sequel :(.