Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,
Inverarity
inverarity

Book Review: A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik

All shall love her and despair in a Darwinian magic school published in the Darwinian YA fantasy genre.


A Deadly Education

Del Rey Books, 2020, 336 pages



I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he saved my life.

Everyone loves Orion Lake. Everyone else, that is. Far as I’m concerned, he can keep his flashy combat magic to himself. I’m not joining his pack of adoring fans. I don’t need help surviving the Scholomance, even if they do. Forget the hordes of monsters and cursed artifacts, I’m probably the most dangerous thing in the place. Just give me a chance and I’ll level mountains and kill untold millions, make myself the dark queen of the world. At least, that’s what the world expects.

Most of the other students in here would be delighted if Orion killed me like one more evil thing that’s crawled out of the drains. Sometimes I think they want me to turn into the evil witch they assume I am. The school certainly does. But the Scholomance isn’t getting what it wants from me. And neither is Orion Lake. I may not be anyone’s idea of the shining hero, but I’m going to make it out of this place alive, and I’m not going to slaughter thousands to do it, either. Although I’m giving serious consideration to just one.




I read the first book in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, and was so bored I didn't finish it. I didn't really need to read yet another wizard school story, but I felt like giving Novik another try, having been pleasantly surprised by Leigh Bardugo's Ninth House.

A Deadly Education is a YA novel about a secret wizarding school for children, but other than that, it is really not very Harry Potterish at all. For one thing, it's darker and more violent; Novik goes into great detail describing the horrific "Maleficaria" who ooze out of the corners of reality to feast on tasty wizarding morsels, and the grotesque ways in which they can kill you.

The Scholomance is a school without teachers; it is a living entity that assigns classes to students and grades them on a harsh pass/die curve. It exists in a kind of pocket universe, surrounded by the Void. Children who have magical talent are sent here at age 14 to learn to control their abilities, and they don't leave until they graduate, four years later... if they survive. They form cliques which are more important than currying social status; with Maleficaria literally lurking around every corner, not having friends to watch your back at meals, in the showers, in study hall, when you go to sleep, can be a death sentence. The survival rate is about 25%. A significant number of those who made it all the way to graduation day die during the annual bloodbath in which hordes of Maleficaria descend on the graduates to eat their brains.

So why does this horrible place exist, and why would any parents send their children there? Novik's worldbuilding is fairly interesting. Magical children are Maleficaria magnets; along with all the other sucky things that happen during puberty, you are suddenly attracting the attention of extradimensional horrors who want to turn you inside out and suck on your organs. 1 in 20 wizard kids on the outside survive to adulthood, which makes the 1 in 4 odds at the Scholomance seem much better. If you do graduate, you have hopefully built up a network with one of several wealthy, influential Enclaves who can guarantee you protection and a relatively safe and comfy life on the outside.

Unless of course, you're a Muggle-born (dammit, I did it) "independent" student who arrives without connections. These kids are reduced to kissing the Enclave kids' asses for four years in the hopes that demonstrating enough talent and loyalty will earn them a slot. Only a very few will be so lucky. We eventually learn that the reason the Enclaves created the Scholomance and then allowed Muggle-born independent children in was so they would be meat shields to distract Maleficaria, while also protecting and serving the Enclave scions, making their lives more comfortable, and thus dramatically increasing their odds of survival.

So all that is an interesting setup. The "heroine" of A Deadly Education is a smart-ass, cynical, bitter girl named El (short for "Galadriel" — yes, her mother is a hippie) who has tons of power and a secret magical affinity for mass destruction, which makes her radiate evil, and a prophecy so dark that apparently her grandparents tried to murder her when she was a baby.

This has all the makings of an interesting story, with an intriguingly gray protagonist and some nice worldbuilding. So why didn't I love it?

First, it's very YA. Which means there is always some contrived reason why nobody shares information, El won't talk to the few friends she has who obviously could be allies, and conveniently always does her heroic and impressive deeds in circumstances where nobody will know about it. She also has a cliched love-hate thing going on with Orion Lake, a paladin wannabe who has a magical affinity for combat magic so effective that he kills a dozen Maleficaria before breakfast and kind of doesn't understand why they're such a big deal to everyone else.

And really, I just didn't like El much. She might have reasons for being such a bitch, but boy is she.

Now, I will say that many of the things that had me groaning were subverted a bit by the end of the book. We get some more detail on El's "dark" nature. She's not actually evil, but she still got stuck with an inherently dark talent, so it's kind of like the Sorting Hat declared she was destined to be Voldemort — dammit, I did it again. A few tragic childhood incidents explain why she's so untrusting and hostile. Orion's heroics have a cost, and we learn why he's so oblivious. The reasoning behind the Scholomance is sort of explained, and by the end, El and Orion and a select few friends are clearly wanting to take down the Enclaves and their shitty system which is an obvious metaphor for class privilege.

Then there's another little bombshell dropped at the very end in a cliched YA "give the main character just enough information to screw with her but not enough to actually answer any questions" cliffhanger.

So, I kind of liked this story, and I might read the sequel, but I didn't find the magic system original, El was hard to like, and the other kids were mostly walking tropes. The writing style was fine, but not compelling, so while this book didn't bore me the way Temeraire did, it didn't really win me over either.

I also found it ironic that Novik, despite trying to make sure all her DEI boxes were checked, as is obligatory for all YA novels written in 2020, still got dragged a bit for "racism." El is half-Welsh, half-Indian, which was apparently all kinds of problematic for a white author to write (and would have been no matter how she wrote El). There's also an unfortunate paragraph that makes perfect sense within the story, but even as I read it, I realized, "Oh dear, Novik did a no-no," and indeed, it generated so much outrage that Novik actually promised to remove it from future editions:

Going fully shaved like that is popular if you can afford it. Dreadlocks are unfortunately not a great idea thanks to lockleeches, which you can probably imagine, but in case you need help, the adult spindly thing comes quietly down at night and pokes an ovipositor into any big clumps of hair, lays an egg inside, and creeps away. A little while later the leech hatches inside its comfy nest, attaches itself to your scalp almost unnoticeably, and starts very gently sucking up your blood and mana while infiltrating further. If you don’t get it out within a week or two, it usually manages to work its way inside the skull, and you’ve got a window of a few days after that before you stop being able to move. On the bright side, something else usually finishes you off quickly at that point.


Keep in mind, this is a world in which there are all kinds of horrific demonic critters trying to literally get under your skin through every available orifice and pore. But that did not stop the uncharitable readings, and from there critics just picked apart every detail of the worldbuilding, from accusations of "Cho Chang"ing an Asian character's name to implying Indians are dirty. (El mentions she only showers once or twice a week — for very good reason because she has no friends to watch her back in the showers.)

Novik apologized, and learned a lesson about apologizing to bad faith critics. (Well, no, unfortunately, she didn't.)

I realize the last bit of this review has been more a rant about the state of YA fiction, but ye gods, every time I look at YA Twitter and Goodreads and the like, I see a carnivorous frenzy of spiteful cannibalistic crabs in a bucket.

That said, this book was just interesting enough that I am kind of curious to see what Novik does with El next, and also what will happen after she's performed her penance and run the sequel through the appropriate panel of "sensitivity readers."





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