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A Deadly Education

Review

A Deadly Education

Some of us hated school; I loved it. Thus, academies of magic are my ultimate fantasy: Hogwarts, of course, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s school for wizards on Roke Island in her peerless Earthsea books. Award-winning writer Naomi Novik is perfectly aware of this lineage. In her latest novel, A DEADLY EDUCATION, she pays homage, often with sly wit, to her predecessors, but she is no imitator. Hogwarts and Roke had at least some of the features of a conventional educational establishment, such as professors, team sports and rival houses. Novik’s creation, the Scholomance, is quite different.

Novik has an M.A. in computer science and once worked on the design of a computer game, yet there is nothing especially high-tech about her previous books: the marvelous alternate-history Temeraire novels (the Napoleonic Wars fought with dragons) and her two excellent fantasy stand-alones, UPROOTED and SPINNING SILVER, based on folklore and traditional fairy tales. In A DEADLY EDUCATION, however --- apparently the first in a planned series --- her academic background comes to the fore. The Scholomance resembles a huge, incredibly intricate video game, technically complex and unimaginably violent.

The school is a weird combination of real and virtual, made of actual materials but “built into the void,” so it doesn’t always follow the laws of physics. Space can change at a moment’s notice. And instead of teachers, there are disembodied mechanisms that give and collect assignments and dole out grades.

At the same time, the place is crawling with mals: vile, bloodthirsty creatures of every sort (Novik must have had as much fun dreaming these up as Rowling did with her “fantastic beasts”). The students are prey, but it’s not as though they all have the same odds of survival. Because the world outside the Scholomance is equally dangerous and monster-ridden, enclaves --- areas defended by magical barriers and wards --- were created by wizards in the 19th century. Urban enclaves like New York and London are the most prestigious, and students belonging to them have access to a level of safety, power and comfort that non-enclavers utterly lack.

"[O]nce I’d gone through orientation --- learned the vocabulary and history of the place --- I adored this clever reworking of young adult formulas into a sophisticated coming-of-age story. I give it an A+."

Insiders and outsiders --- how high school! A DEADLY EDUCATION does indeed play with some classic teen themes: young woman from wrong side of tracks meets rich guy; lonely nerd makes friends; mean girls and creepy boys become human beings.

Novik’s protagonist is named Galadriel (El for short), after the elf princess in The Lord of the Rings. She’s 16, and words like rude or sarcastic scarcely begin to describe her lack of social graces. People don’t like her. “Nobody does, except Mum.” Oh, yes, her mother: a gifted sorceress who raised her daughter in a remote Welsh commune peopled mostly by non-wizards, known as mundanes (a word way too close to muggles to be accidental).

Novik gives El a tough, mouthy voice that is especially amusing when applied to the commune’s do-gooders, who reprimand her for “negativity of spirit.” That’s putting it mildly. El is an extraordinarily talented sorceress, but her gift is for mass destruction. Although she is scrupulous about rejecting the dark side of magic, other students seem to sense her power, and recoil.

El is like a scholarship kid compared to the enclave students, who have plenty of magical energy, or mana (equivalent to money, power, status), at their fingertips, sort of like inherited wealth. She has to earn hers with maintenance chores, solitary aerobics sessions and, worst of all, crochet (“Words can’t describe how much I hate crochet”).

Being lonely in an ordinary school is sad, but in the Scholomance it is actually life-threatening because of the mals. To do anything unaccompanied is perilous, so friendless El is at particular risk, whether it’s finding someone to sit with in the cafeteria (where the jockeying for a good table reflects all the clique-iness of a typical high school) or somebody to stand guard in the bathroom while she’s taking a shower.

And then an enclave boy named Orion saves El’s life, as he has saved many others. A born mal hunter, he can’t stop himself from killing the murderous creatures, and he is regarded as a hero. El, however, just finds him annoying (she’s used to taking care of herself). Of course, the insults they exchange are merely a form of flirtation. In teen romances, it’s always the couples who argue who wind up together.

Their staunch-yet-thorny relationship leads other students to accept El, and though she’s suspicious of their motives (trying to butter up Orion), she’s grateful for the protection; she even begins to make real friends. El is only a junior now, but when it comes time to graduate, anybody without an alliance or an invitation to join an enclave is, literally, dead meat. A horde of hungry mals descend on the seniors as they try to leave. El’s own father died that way, while saving the life of her mother.

Orion, meanwhile (stay with me here), has upset the whole balance of the Scholomance by saving 600 students’ lives. The school wasn’t designed to accommodate so many. There isn’t enough food to go around, and the mals, because of Orion’s feats, are more ravenous for human fodder than ever. Graduation day looms as an absolute massacre.

And so a bunch of students embark on a mission. I love a mission, those old movies where an unlikely mix of prisoners/soldiers/air-crash survivors bond and triumph. Here, the gang consists of El and her destructive superpowers, Orion with his mal-killing zeal, and a motley crew of magically talented juniors and seniors. Plus, El has secured an ancient, precious spell that enables wizards to manipulate matter.

I won’t reveal what happens. But at the end, El gets a message from Mum that is surprising, ominous and clearly a setup for the next book.

My only complaint is that Novik’s elaborate universe kind of takes over A DEADLY EDUCATION in the first few chapters. Too much worldbuilding happens before the story really gets going. But once I’d gone through orientation --- learned the vocabulary and history of the place --- I adored this clever reworking of young adult formulas into a sophisticated coming-of-age story. I give it an A+.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on October 2, 2020

A Deadly Education
by Naomi Novik

  • Publication Date: September 29, 2020
  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Del Rey
  • ISBN-10: 0593128486
  • ISBN-13: 9780593128480