Iphinome Reviews Novik’s
A Deadly Education

By Iphinome:

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.

Four stars.

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10 thoughts on “Iphinome Reviews Novik’s
A Deadly Education

  1. Huh, I blinked at the dreadlocks segment (which is in my ebook copy and I can type up, but I’m about 75% sure Mike would rather not host it) but didn’t even notice the Arabic bit – the book does make it clear that aside from gur irel fcrpvny obbx fur trgf nf n oevor all her school-magic-provided stuff is very preparation to be the next Evil One themed, so it didn’t stand out to me as different or singling anyone out.

  2. Why is a specific incident of vehicular violence supposed to be stereotypical violence?

    I don’t think it would have occurred to me that a cartoon of “a man in a car about to mow down a couple of hapless pedestrians” would have been something stereotyping Arabs as being violent, because vehicular assault/homicide isn’t something that Arabs have been typically depicted as doing.

    A picture of a man with a machine gun or bombs, using them against civilians. well, that would be closer to the stereotype.

    I am reminded of a discussion on a language blog (languagehat) that I read recently, on the point that the word “kill” is used, perhaps overused, when discussing the grammar of various languages. There was reportedly even a complaint about it in a linguistic journal precisely because of the point that it made the speakers of those languages seem violent.

    Quoting from there:

    “Kill,” unfortunately seems hard to beat as a cross-linguistically applicable example of a transitive verbs. It’s about as semantically transitive as you can get: telic, no inherent duration, binary in terms of whether the object is affected or not, doesn’t run into the potential idiosyncrasies that perception (see) or emotional (love/hate) verbs do.

  3. @Meredith If we assume the Scholomance personalizes all language worksheets, sure.

  4. @Iphinome

    We don’t have to assume – the book is quite clear about the lessons being personalised, and El’s in particular being very consistently personalised in a violence direction.

  5. To be clear, that doesn’t necessarily make it okay – I’m going to think about that when I’m less dizzy, and YMMV anyway – but it’s established in the first scene and continues on throughout the entire book, with the single exception rot13’d above. El has to be very specific and very calm to get anything else out of the school when she’s requesting something, and she doesn’t get that much choice when she’s getting assignments. All doom and violence, all the time.

  6. Meredith, I read it the way you did. Also, that she assumed it was modern Arabic because of the car not the violence.

    Iphinome, you read this text more closely than I did and picked up a lot that I hadn’t noticed, like the names. You made me want to read it again more carefully this time. I also agreed with where you placed it among the three books. Spinning Silver is definitely my favorite of her works.

  7. In case one of you is interested, and totally not because I forgot to tick the notify box and need a reason to add a comment, I’m including my reading notes ROT13’d for spoilers.

    2% Fur qbrfa’g arrq fnivat. Na nssvavgl sbe qrfgehpgvba.
    Pna cbjre fcryyf jvgu qrngu naq trg uhagrq qbja sbe zheqre be fnpevsvpr fbzrguvat yrffre be trg njnl jvgu vg naq unir gur znyvn, gur qenvarq zntvp ebg lbh sebz gur vafvqr.

    Ry, cbjre naq na nffubyr, fur’f nyzvtugl

    4% Tenqhngvba vaibyirf svtugvat lbhe jnl bhg guebhtu n unyy svyyrq jvgu gur ovt anfgl znyvn cbjreshy rabhtu gb unat bhg va gur tenqhngvba unyy naq cnegnxr va gur lrneyl srnfg be fhfgnva gurzfryirf srrqvat bss yrffre znyvn

    Ry arrqf gb ybbx fgebat gb unir nal shgher ng nyy, ure zbgure jbhyq jrypbzr ure ohg ab bar nebhaq ure jbhyq.

    18% Nsgre n enfu nqzvffvba Bevba fgnegf gb fhfcrpg Ry bs orvat n znyvnspre. Ry fgnegf gb hfr uvf nccnerag nggnpuzrag gb onegre orggre eryngvbaf jvgu bguref. Fbpvny pyvzovat urycf ure fheiviny punaprf obgu jvgu cbgragvny nyyvrf naq jvgu zber npprff gb erfbheprf.
    Znan perngrq guebhtu rssbeg.

    19% Qvffvat gernpyr gneg, gnxr gung Cbggre.

    20% Wnpx gur Znyrsvpre nggnpxf Ry gb erzbir n guerng naq fhpx qbja ure fjrrg fjrrg cbjre. Ry ershfrf gb hfr znyvn rira gb fnir ure bja yvsr. Bevba juvgr xavtugf va naq fnirf ure ntnva, ur fnj gung fur jbhyqa’g hfr rira gur gval nzbhagf bs znyvn gung zbfg fghqragf qb.

    22% Gurl fcraq gur avtug gbtrgure jvgu Bevba thnevat Ry, qrfcvgr gur zhpu vapernfrq evfx bs nggnpx oebhtug ba ol gjb fghqragf va bar ebbz.

    Ry cynlf cbchynevgl tnzrf ng yhapu, oevatvat va crbcyr jub’ir orra avpr be ng yrnfg abg njshy gb ure; gurl pna evfr jvgu ure.

    31% N yhapu rirag, jbeqf rkpunatrq naq crbcyr fubj Ry n yvggyr yblnygl. Bevba fgnegf gb yvxr ure.

    34% Juvgr xavtug vf evtug. Birecevivyrtrq nff qbrfa’g rira xabj nobhg ubj xvqf ner qbvat uvf znvagranapr jbex naq onfvpnyyl vaqraghevat gurzfryirf gb rapynir xvqf yvxr uvz gb trg bhg nyvir. Nyy unir gur fnzr punapr? Ur unf nyyvrf naq tnqtrgf cnffrq qbja naq n onggrel shyy bs znan, n thnenagrrq frg bs crbcyr gb uryc uvz trg bhg nyvir naq n avpr fnsr cynpr gb tb ubzr gb.

    38% N ernyyl njrfbzr obbx pbzrf gb Ry’f unaqf naq na nggnpx unccraf va gur yvoenel.

    42% Naq yvxr gur cebcurpl fur xvyyf znal xvqf vafvqr gur znjzbhgu

    51% Zna zbjvat qbja crqrfgevnaf, JGS

    60% Na nyyvnapr ba bssre abj gung fur xabjf Ry’f cbjre. Vg’f abg gur uhatre tnzrf, ab orgenlvat lbhe nyyvrf. Bapr wbvarq lbh’er va gvyy lbh tenqhngr.

    Bevba’f zbafgre xvyyvat vf BPQ, ur unfa’g unq fbpvny eryngvbafuvcf ur whfg xvyyf znyrpvsref

    71% Bevba gevrf unqre naq guvatf sbe uvz trg ebhture nf guvatf vzcebir sbe RY, gur onynapr guvat ntnva.

    Na nggnpx pbzrf ng Ry’f qrzbafgengvba

  8. Iphinome: Solely reading the passage you quoted, I can see why you’d flag that — and I can also see how someone might totally fail to notice the problem. It’s not so strange to me that someone might combine the elements of language, time period, and, er, violence and get that without thinking that it looks like an accusation. In the last day or two, I heard about a hit-and-run in Ontario that was clearly aimed at a family of Muslims (and succeeded in killing several). With that in mind, the book description would make me think that the Arabic speakers are the “hapless pedestrians”, rather than the driver. So if I were reading the passage right now — which I guess I just did, in your post — I’d probably draw the opposite conclusion.

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