A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

I finished reading A Deadly Education (The Scholomance #1) last week, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but reviewing the book turned out to be a struggle. When I try to describe it to people I think would enjoy the story, the book sounds like pure horror. It definitely has a dark side, but the characters pulled me in as much as the world. This is a complex, magical, alternate Earth with magic costs measured in mana from effort or in the equivalent stolen from life. The characters face both tangible obstacles in the form of mana- and people-eating monsters as well as ones created by how they were raised.

Those with the ability to interact with magic start accruing mana naturally from their daily activities at puberty. It’s not without cost, however, as the existence of mana attracts all manner of magical, and deadly, beasts. This is only half of the framework, with the second part being the Scholomance. It is a school created in the void to give students a place to learn to control their magic with some measure of safety.

The school’s original design attempted to protect them from everything, but it proved fallible. By the time of the story, magical beasts have taken over the bottom of the school and some breach the other levels each year. Freshman are collected by a spell and apparated into the school cafeteria. There are no breaks, not for summer, spring, or holidays. Once there, school is in session straight through for four years.

To graduate, seniors must fight their way through the largest and most powerful beasts on the bottom floor. Only those who make it out the gate into the normal world succeed. A good year is when half of the graduating class survives.

The above is why it sounds like horror, and those are driving elements so expect some mortal danger. At the same time, all the traditional pieces of a high school drama are present with cliques, social ostracism, and jockeying for position to name a few.

What makes this story different from a mainstream high school drama is not just the magic. Every high school trope has a concrete reason beyond teenage psychology. The cliques are composed of those with membership in one of the enclaves. They have access to more resources and have better survival rates not just after school but during it. The jockeying involves attempts to earn the possibility of a spot in one of the cliques or to make an alliance that might be strong enough to survive graduation. The ultimate prize is an invitation to join an enclave after graduation, as the dangers don’t cease after schooling, but survival runs a close second.

This world is complex, the reasons things happen are multi-leveled, and the characters have many layers with what you first see not always offering the full story. The main cast (with Galadriel and Orion as leads but a good number of others surrounding them) experiences growth as they figure out not just what motivates others but themselves. They make hard choices, and success is not always within their grasp.

Galadriel guides us through the story as an extremely personal narrator. She didn’t seem likeable at first, but she was relatable. I understood her reasons for acting the way she did and could see myself doing the same given her circumstances. The longer I spent with her grumpy, bitter self, though, the more I grew to like her.

We experience things through Galadriel’s perspective, whether or not her interpretations are correct. She comes with baggage after her father’s family rejects her on first sight because of a vision that she’ll destroy everything. One character likened meeting her with the feeling of realizing it’s about to rain when too far from shelter.

Yes, I’m enamored of the description, with this as an example. The writing is pure poetry at times.

Orion is almost her perfect foil. He runs around saving everyone, but he doesn’t want to be the hero. He wants to believe everyone has the same right to live and the same chances, never considering his attempt to change things could have consequences.

It’s up to Galadriel to open his eyes to the truth of life outside an enclave in the rudest way possible. The dialogue, especially between these two, is another reason I enjoyed the read. It hints at more than we know, offering hooks to keep me reading.

The characters were the strongest element for me, though I found the world intriguing. The series also starts at the end of their junior year, implying we’ll see them beyond the graduation gates before the series concludes. I also found impressive how the modern narration here bore little resemblance to the other Naomi Novik book I read recently. In both cases, the voice matched the story.

The book tackles big questions of how life is valued along with the little ones such as whether Galadriel deserves to be liked. It’s powerful and intense with layers-deep characters, mortal danger, and self-discovery. There are as many humorous moments as horrific, and sometimes the two happen at the same time.

The complexity of the world and the effects of blind privilege works as does the prophecy’s impact on Galadriel. Amazing analogies make even harsh truths understandable. And the school is equal parts frustrating and amusing as they deal with the smaller distractions along with the potentially deadly ones.

Had I read the blurb first, I might not have been so willing to try the book. Instead, my son recommended it, and I’m glad he did. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next one for sure. My library had a copy in eBook, so it’s worth checking if your eBook budget is already tapped.

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