Content notes for Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education: violence/gore, racism
- Some people have darker magic and the school encourages them – there are references to magical violence, including torture and murder – and the students fight monsters, so there’s also that and sometimes things are rather gory (either because of the magic practices the school suggests or because some monsters are inherently gory)
- There are several descriptions of various ethnicities throughout the book that were met with mixed reactions from readers of those ethnicities (and some – in particular one that singled out dreadlocks as being especially prone to infestations – are just plain racist). This review on A Naga of the Nusantara offers an in-depth look at these issues and the author has since issued an apology for the dreadlocks scene and announced that it will be removed from future printings/the ebook version.
Representation: biracial Welsh-Indian protagonist, several characters of colour (some of which have central roles and/or get their own side plot)
Magic. Magic in a boarding school. Magic in a British boarding school. It’s been done, right? And it’s been done so many times and many of them were really not that good. Wanna know why I still loved Naomi Novik’s newest novel A Deadly Education?
Just like Novik’s recent fantasy novels Uprooted and Spinning Silver this novel is inspired by (Eastern) European folklore. While it is set in Britain and the protagonist is a Welsh-Indian teenager, the school (and series) shares a name with its fabled inspiration: The Scholomance, a Transylvanian school for dark magic, run by the devil.
In the novel the school is not run by anyone but magic itself – and it has a very, very twisted sense of humour. It is, however, also the safest place for young sorcerers whose magic makes them a yummy snack to all the things that lurk in the dark. And in its own twisted way the Scholomance makes sure that all those who graduate are ready to face the dangers of the outside world – those who aren’t simply get killed along the way. But still, one in four surviving is better than one in twenty, right? So all the students have to do to graduate is survive a few years at the Scholomance.
But there is safety in numbers, especially in this world, where everything has a price and magic works in one of two ways: You either use mana to work spells or you use malia. Mana can be built up and then stored and thus shared. It’s a safe way to do magic but it’s also time and resource consuming. You need the time and space and safety to do whatever it is you do to build up mana – most commonly exercise or something something else you put a lot of effort into – and the means to store it. Malia is what you use if you don’t have the time to build up mana. You pull energy from other lifeforms. Not a problem if you use it for small magics every once in a while but pull too much from too sophisticated lifeforms and it will change you.
Protagonist El, however, is a loner. She’s the odd girl and in her three years at the Scholomance she has mostly kept to herself. Partly because she’s just not a people-person and partly because her magic is rather bloodthirsty – like every good hero, she has a prophecy and hers promises lots of blood and death and the school seems to delight in teaching her spells of mass murder and destruction. She is also the daughter of a sorceress staunchly against ever using malia and conscious of how easy it would be for her to turn into a maleficer – those sorcerers who use malia to such an extent that it changes them into something else.
I really, really enjoyed El. She is not likeable. She is prickly and anti-social and mostly rather mean but she is very well written and her behaviour just makes so much sense and fits her backstory. She also has an excellent character arc not despite but because of how reluctant she is to become a hero – or to turn into the powerful wicked sorceress she was born to be. To me she was just very, very relatable and I enjoy that a lot more than characters that are written to be likeable.
Plus, that’s what Orion’s for. After all, he’s the golden boy, the knight in shining armor and probably the guy El despises the most at the entire Scholomance. Because Orion has to save his fellow students. They have one year left until Graduation and most of them should be dead by now, eaten by the monsters that found their way into the school, their mana fueling the Scholomance’s magic – but because of Orion they aren’t. And that just means that the monsters are hungrier than normal while the school doesn’t get its due. Not that Orion believes in the principle of balance – which is just one of the many, many things about him that annoy El to no end.
The dynamic between the two of them was great – but then I have a thing for characters snipping at each other. Just like El’s relationships with the other more prominent side characters, it develops a lot over the course of the novel but it always keeps its snarky banter vibes. As the story is told from El’s point of view, hardly any character is shown in a favorable light and it takes quite a while until we get to know more about them than that El doesn’t like them. But as the story goes on, some really great friendships start to develop and a bunch of side characters get more and more nuanced – and El starts reflecting more and more on the way this magical society works and at whose expense and how she wants to fit into it.
Generally, the novel, while pretty dark (kids die, on and off page, and it’s just the way things are), is also full of humour. Sure, it’s dark as hell, especially because El regularly contemplates giving in to her dark side, but it is also often laughing out loud hilarious. Yes, it touches on a lot of serious topics and El has to figure out a way to deal with the systemic injustice of her world that goes beyond being a snarky, anti-social loner. But it is also all about the friendships and finding humor and community even in the darkest situations and where you least expect it. For me, this was a great mix and I am really looking forward to the second part of this series which will be published in September.
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