Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Australia in exchange for an honest review. I also purchased a copy of the audiobook for my own personal use.
I have consistently loved Naomi Novik’s novels since reading Temeraire during high school. Uprooted remain one of my favourite stand-alone fantasy to this day, and Novik has proven time and again that she is a master at crafting a palpable atmosphere with every book. So when I heard that Novik was releasing a new series that mixed academia and dark magic, A Deadly Education easily became one of my most anticipated releases of 2020. It’s been a few days since I finished the book, and while my feelings on it are decidedly mixed, I still catch myself thinking about this world. The Scholomance is a haunting setting that leaves its spectre on both the magical world within the novel, and on my subconscious. If you’re looking for an otherworldly and evocative read for the spooky season, you should have this book on your radar. Although I think there are a few issues with the pacing and the worldbuilding which I will explore below.
A Deadly Education has an intriguing premise, true to the titular promise – when students of the Scholomance fail to graduate, they literally die. And not just any old death, but a particularly gruesome end that often involves either being devoured by the numerous monsters (referred to as ‘mals’ in this book), or being casually murdered by a fellow student. It’s a premise that allows a thorough examination of classism and privilege, as the students belonging to prominent enclaves are often spared this tragic fate. Meanwhile, students with less systematic and social support are fated to almost certain death. As the monsters of the Scholomance
At the centre of the book is Galadriel (yes, named for the Lord of the Rings character – but not the movie version), or El, a young witch with the affinity for calamity and cataclysmic destruction. Throughout the book, El hovers one spell away from transforming into the most powerful dark sorceress of the universe – and I won’t lie, I was gunning for her to get there. While I had issues with parts of the writing, I absolutely loved El’s voice. I know that prickly, sarcastic heroines are now an entire trope of their own – but I can’t help but fall in love with every single one of them. El is pragmatic, witty, and absolutely refuses to dance to anything but her own tune. She rejects all other potential narratives, whether it’s Orion Lake’s rescue attempt framing her as a damsel in distress – or the universe whispering its promise that she is destined to doom and despair.
I enjoyed the other characters in the book as well, especially the ultimate himbo: Orion Lake. He was an excellent foil for El – she’s destined to be the planet’s most fearsome villain, and he’s fated to be the knight in shining armor – or at least that’s what the rest of the world would like to believe. El and Orion has none of these expectations for each other, the natural banter and camaraderie that blooms from their initial one-sided rivalry was so much fun to watch. El’s evolving relationship with her classmates, especially Aadhya and Lu, was heartwarming to see unfold – especially in a setting fraught with mistrust and betrayals.
My struggle with this book was in the way it was written. It’s evident that Novik carefully planned this universe and its magic system – with attempts at inclusivity that was sorely lacking in other magical schools. However, the setting of this book was limited to The Scholomance, which resulted in large paragraphs of inconsequential tangent within the text itself devoted purely to exposition of the world. There are times when I zoned out from the audiobook from 15-20 minutes and ended up missing nothing of importance from the text. And while I am not a reader that demands all the world building to be strictly plot-related in my fantasy, I felt the way it was written here disengaged me from the story.
As mentioned above, the book went to lengths to discuss the issues of privilege inherent in many academic settings, which I greatly appreciated. Yet, I felt the world building fumble when the discussion of race came up. There is nothing overtly problematic that I could spot, however, the lack of reflection on it struck me as odd. The students of Scholomance hailed from all over the globe, and they were generally fixated on the matter of class. El is very quick to point out any other types of inequality: from the status of the enclave students, to the school’s inherent bias to keep the kids of the powerful alive. Yet El, who is biracial (Welsh and Indian), rarely commented on the influence of race in this world, which is ostensibly nestled within our own. El faced racial microaggression when she was living outside of the school, but never within its walls. This, coupled with the fact that the school is set in England – with the admissions largely dominated by the Manchester and New York enclave due to their power – made this lack of insight even more perplexing.
Part of the magic system is dependent on how much of a polyglot each person is, the more languages they know, the wider the potential access to different spells from across the world. Spells are jealously hoarded and ruthlessly bartered for trade. This made me wonder about the world from the context of colonisation: did the sorcerers simply not partake in it? Why would they not, given the potential to expand their own library of ancient spellls – especially when the community shows little moral compunction elsewhere (we are literally talking about people who send children to a magic murder school here). What happened to the ones who were colonised? Would indigenous people still be systematically wiped out if they were the key to preserving and passing on knowledge of precious spells? Are there languages which are more valued and why (for example, the book touched on that Hindi spells could not be traded as easily, because all the kids who spoke Hindi also knew English). The lack of examination of this part bothered me, especially as the book loved to provide endless exposition about everything else. Also a little nitpick, I didn’t like that magical stamina was referred to as mana in this novel, a term that El said was in use because that is the current vogue in the magical world. I know it could just be a reference to video games, but the term itself has Polynesian heritage. Again, for a magical system that placed its weight on languages, and a book that is conspicuously absent of Polynesian sorcerers, it annoyed me that this was the ‘fashionable’ term.
Okay, I promise I like this book even though the last few paragraphs suggested otherwise. The inclusion are present, even though in this case – a bit more context of racial dynamics within this world would have definitely improved the world building. I hope this is something that will be addressed within the future books. All in all, I would recommend but with some caveats around the pacing, and uneven worldbuilding. It’s been a while since I was this torn about a book, so I would love to know what you all think if you have read it!