Review: A Deadly Education

Image from BarneasandNoble.com

Synopsis

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.

Review

Read: July 2021

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

What if the Hogwarts staff one day looked out at all the students in the Great Hall, said, “Fuck these little shits,” and collectively noped out of Hogwarts, leaving the kids to fend for themselves against whatever magical mishaps and whackadoodle, murderous beasties cropped up?

Your answer is the Scholomance. In the Scholomance, though, you’d be so lucky as to have only Hagrid’s blast-ended skrewts and the occasional basilisk out to kill you. The food is sometimes contaminated. Scholomance kids are attacked by deadly maleficaria on a regular basis (at least once per month) – and not all survive. You’re crazy if you go to the bathroom alone. The result is a Machiavellian, hardscrabble milieu that necessitates alliances, business deals, and politicking to boost your chances to survive. Sometimes kids even make friends.

Naomi Novik could’ve easily chosen the most advantaged kid to narrate the story. (That would be Orion Lake, the son of a New York enclave official, who is widely known for his lion’s heart, generosity, and his singular combat skills.) Instead, Novik opts for one of the school’s biggest loners: Galadriel “El” Higgins. El is charming in that she isn’t readily likeable – or at least not likeable in the traditional sense. She’s smart, determined, fiercely independent, and prickly, while also being deeply flawed. Novik lets El’s strengths be her weaknesses and her weaknesses be her strengths; her attributes are neither purely beneficial nor purely detrimental to her survival. El’s echinated exterior at first leaves her isolated and therefore disadvantaged in terms of survival, but later on it does earn her a few real friends and the respect of some efficacious potential allies. Furthermore, El could be extraordinarily powerful, but the moral and physical costs of that power deter her from taking full advantage of it. A refreshingly imperfect heroine, El’s delightfully acerbic stream of consciousness lends a conversational feel to the narration. It’s also wonderful to witness El develop as a person. She begins the book by not really having friends, just folks willing to do business with her, and gradually emerges from her shell. I love how her relationship with Orion blossoms into a friendship instead of just taking off into a romantic relationship right away. I’ll be interested to see further developments on that front (PLEASE!!!!), and I’m hoping for further progress in El’s burgeoning friendships with Aadhya and Liu.

Novik clearly has exerted a huge amount of effort into creating the Scholomance world, and that effort has borne fruit. The world Novik has crafted in the Scholomance universe is assiduously imagined and thoroughly explained. Novik’s worldbuilding, however, is sometimes awkward. She has a tendency to monologue her way through worldbuilding via El, and if the material weren’t so damn interesting I’d probably hate the infodumping. As much as I was enthralled by the subject matter, I often had a sense of… being unmoored. Sometimes I’d be wrapped up in the information and then think to myself, “Wait, where is this going?” However, El’s social status and introverted personality, alongside the isolation of the Scholomance’s occupants in general, allow the hefty information style to fit just a little bit better than it should have. Still, I can’t help but think that so much of the book’s content focuses on worldbuilding that the plot is edged out – or that Novik just wanted to fill more pages than a less heavy-handed approach would have.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the elephant in the room: the racist locs paragraph. Yes, Naomi Novik wrote a whole damn paragraph about “lock-leeches” that lay eggs in locs and whose larvae can kill the host. (I guess my library’s copy is the old version.) Now all racism is stupid, but this instance is especially stupid because Novik had to 1) conceive the idea, 2) write it out, 3) decide that it was fine to have written it, and 4) send in her manuscript to editors, and this somehow all passed the sensitivity read. To her credit, Novik offered a frank apology and made some serious efforts to correct her error, but the unfortunate fact remains that the incident happened and is hurtful.

A Deadly Education begins a potential-packed series in a dark, gritty setting full of characters likeable not because they are perfect, but because they are so very human. While Novik’s worldbuilding can be as much a ballast as it can be an attractant, A Deadly Education is an entertaining read worthy of picking up. Just look for later printings of it – and if you happen to get ahold of the oldest printing, be aware of why that paragraph on locs is problematic.

To learn more about race-based hair discrimination and what you can do, visit TheCROWNAct.org.

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