A Deadly Education (The Scholomance, Book 1) by Naomi Novik. YA, contemporary fantasy.
El (Galadriel) is pissed off. Her classmate Orion just rescued her for the second time –needlessly. She’s capable, more than capable, El’s powerful – El, power, get it? Get it? The YA tradition of unsubtle names is well represented–people need to know she’s powerful. Her future outside of school depends on building a reputation good enough for acceptance into one of the world’s magical enclaves. She won’t last out there alone.
She won’t even last in school alone.
Malficaria, creatures that survive by taking mana from other beings (if humans do it they’re called maleficers) see the young with their growing magic and low defenses as tasty snacks, in the outside world magical children have a low survival rate. The Scholomance built in a pocket dimension with only tiny connections to the outside world was designed to keep malficaria out so the kids – teens, in this case, it’s a high school – have a chance.
Bit of a failure, that. The place is infested. Students have to travel in groups, watch each other’s backs and always check over their shoulders because the place is infested. Only four out of five make it to graduation of which half of those make it past the maleficaria waiting in the graduation hall for their yearly feast.
The 40% chance of living to 18 and making it out the door alive is still considered better odds than being a magical kid on the outside. Good times.
This brings us back to El, she wants to live. In the teacherless, libertarian, capitalist, world of the Sholomance, where every bit of material even pencils must be bartered for or life risked to obtain, she has to show people she’d make a good ally. With her affinity for destruction and death magic that should be easy. It takes a lot of juice though and unlike most, El can’t just flirt with a dark side a little bit, sacrifice a bunny for a little malia, and juice a flashy spell — if she goes bad it’ll be the full Sauron. She hoarded mana the hard way, waited for a chance to show her stuff, and got rescued like a helpless waif.
Orion doesn’t have El’s problems. Filling the rich kid/star athlete role he has a much easier time at the Scholomance. His mother is a politically powerful member of the large New York magical enclave, he arrived with people who’ve known him since he was a toddler all prepared to help him out. He has access to a store of mana and magical artifacts that have been passed down inside the school for years, generations. There’s still danger but he has the resources to face it. And that’s all he does, half-assing his classes Orion gets to white knight around the school hunting down maleficaria.
Orion, hunter. Maybe in the meta world of YA, the characters are like cats and some magic forces them to take after their names.
After convincing Orion that she doesn’t need saving – like so soon it should be funny – El’s ambushed by one of the students who’s gone full murdery maleficer. So now she does need saving.
Or she could go bad, rip out the guy’s magic and live on.
El doesn’t do it, she passes the test, she will diminish and remain Galadriel – not my joke, the text hits hard on the love me and despair line. Orion swoops in to save the day then spends the night in El’s room guarding her.
And is seen leaving in the morning.
Now he’s sitting with her at meals. People see her as Orion’s girlfriend even though she’s totally NOT. And the rise from outcast to having the rich, popular guy follow her around leads to dangers on a different level, cliques, jealousy, rivalries, maybe – for the first time –friendships.
The YA tropes are well represented, from the politics of who can sit where in the library and lunchroom to more than a few Hunger Games parallels. Some students come in with allies, the less privileged need to find them, oftentimes by taking on personal risk in exchange for favor from the haves. El, like Katness, resents the enclave kids yet even she has to offer what she can do for what they have.
Which leads us to the theme of balance. Magic requires it. El’s mother is a hippie healer living in a commune so El is a potential dark lord navigating a world where everything from notebooks to keeping watch for maleficaria while someone else showers is a negotiated exchange for advantage. Orion with his Targaryen-silver hair is liked and even held in awe while ambiguous brown El is unpopular and suspect. Until Orion’s hunting leaves the malfaceria starved of low-hanging fruit and to balance it out, the privileged and powerful have to suffer attacks. For all that it’s heavy-handed – YA remember? – it all pulls together rather well.
Your own enjoyment is going to depend on a tolerance for the many YA stereotypes and for an angry-snarky-unpleasant at times teenage protagonist. I like El, I like her arrogance and paranoia and surprise when not everyone’s as bad as she thinks they are. A potential evil overlord should have a chip on her shoulder. It makes doing the right thing harder and it makes it more rewarding when she does. I’m eager for the sequel.
I’d rate A Deadly Education slightly lower than Spinning Silver and slightly higher than Uprooted both of which got four stars from me so this shouldn’t be a surprise.
Did you think I wasn’t going to mention it?
Controversy: An early edition of the book contains a racially insensitive passage about the danger of wearing hair in locs (dreadlocks), I didn’t notice it in my read-through and couldn’t find it with a text search which makes it difficult to comment on. There is an apology posted on Naomi Novik’s website. https://www.naominovik.com/apology/
The second controversy: Midway through the book I came across this passage:
Predictably, an Arabic worksheet appeared on my desk the instant I sat down that morning. There wasn’t a single word of English on it; the school didn’t even give me a dictionary. And judging by the cheery cartoonish illustrations next to the lines—most notably a man in a car about to mow down a couple of hapless pedestrians—I had the strong suspicion that it was modern Arabic, too.
Predictably, I grabbed my notebook and added this eloquent line, “51% Man mowing down pedestrians, WTF?”
Mowing down pedestrians has in recent years become a fixture of the American extreme right-wing. From driving over Standing Rock protesters to the vehicular murder of Heather Heyer while protesting the Unite the Right rally and now several Republican-controlled states introducing laws that specifically make it legal to drive over protesters, it’s completely unfair to treat native Arabic speakers as sharing the same murderous impulse that Republicans have regarding people on foot.
More seriously, what the hell? A comment about hairstyles gets an apology and an edit, a line that implies Arabic speakers are violent stays in the book? Even if El’s other language worksheets imply violence–which would make sense for El though it goes unmentioned–singling out Arabic specifically strikes me as a Bad Idea. She does later follow this scene having El hang out in the library near a bunch of Arabic speakers who show no particular propensity for vehicular homicide but still. It is–as the kids say–messed up, yo.
And I hope it was a one-off because I really did like the rest of the book.