Book Review: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Title: A Deadly Education (The Scholomance, #1)
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication date: September 29, 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Lesson One of the Scholomance: Learning has never been this deadly.

A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets.

There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere.

El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students. 

Unlike Hogwarts, Scholomance is a magical school that no one in their right mind would want to attend. Everything there wants to kill you, it seems. Evil magical creatures, known as maleficaria, lurk everywhere, drooling over the chance to eat some yummy young wizards. Students never go anywhere alone, and even with companions, death is literally around every corner.

Be careful taking food in the cafeteria line — it might be poisonous. Don’t be first or last into a room. Don’t sit near air vents. Try not to shower too often — there’s no telling what might come up through the drain.

And if you actually make it through all four years, there’s still no guarantee of survival. Graduation from Scholomance involves fighting your way out through a mass of deadly maleficaria waiting at the gate, and in typical years, only a fraction survive.

If all this sounds terrifying and exhausting… it is. Given the grisly death waiting around every corner, you might be wondering why this school exists in the first place and why any reasonable parent might send their children there. The answer is that while students’ lives are in danger 24/7 at the school, they’re still slightly more protected there (the school exists in an alternate dimension only barely tethered to the real world) than at home, since apparently young magical people are so packed full of deliciousness that they’d be under constant attack with little protection if they remained with their families.

El, short for Galadriel, seems to have an affinity for power and dark magic, and finds terrible spells of mass destruction at her fingertips all the time. She has to make a conscious effort to avoid doing harm. She’s also prickly and seems to give off an aura of evil, even though she’s not, so she’s pretty friendless, and that leaves her vulnerable.

That changes, though, when school hero Orion Lake saves her life a few times. Suddenly, the wealthy, established kids who belong to enclaves (big, secure settlements of magical people) want to include El in their circles, as a way of getting Orion on their sides. El is more interested in true allies than sucking up to get into an enclave, and she’s also more than a little irritated that everyone assumes Orion keeps saving her because they’re dating. So there’s that.

When I said that Scholomance is exhausting, that applies to the experience of reading it as well. It’s so unrelentingly claustrophic that the reading experience, for me at least, just isn’t fun. I got tired of chapter after chapter showing all the ways the students could die. Scholomance sounds like a terrible place, and there are practically no lighter moments within the book to break up all the looming deadly attacks.

The author does a good job of showing the awfulness of the experience of being there, but I can’t say that I needed to read quite that much about it. I didn’t feel like I got a good sense of what drives El or why she has such an affinity for darkness and destruction. We learn about a prophecy that says she’ll basically destroy the whole world, but I still felt like there was something about her personality that didn’t quite click. Likewise, we get to know some things about El’s eventual circle of friends, including Orion, but I didn’t get a good feel for who they actually are as people.

After publication, the author was called out for racial insensitivity due to a paragraph about the perils of dreadlocks. She’s apologized, and the paragraph will be revised in future printings. I believe her when she says it was unintentional, but it’s hard to understand how a book can go through the editing and publication process and not have something like that caught. (And really, if the same content was included, but with a reference to long hair instead of dreadlocks, it would have gotten the same point across without feeding into racial sterotypes.)

I had to wonder about a particular passage:

I got angry all over again, and I looked at him straight-on and hissed — when I’m really angry, it’s a hiss, even if there’re no actual sibilants involved — “We didn’t.”

Why did that passage catch my eye? Because I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, and recently highlighted this bit in my review of The Light Fantastic:

Another voice, dry as tinder, hissed, “You would do well to remember where you are.” It should be impossible to hiss a sentence with no sibilants in it, but the voice made a very good attempt.

Homage? Coincidence? I’m not sure, but it definitely jumped out at me.

Anyway…

While the book felt like a slog for at least the first half (seriously, the constant threat of death is TIRING), I eventually got caught up in the adventure enough to race through to the end.

A Deadly Education is book one of the Scholomance trilogy, with book two, The Last Graduate, due out in July 2021. At this point, I’m on the fence about whether to continue. I mean, probably yes? But I guess I prefer my magical boarding schools with at least an ounce of cheer. Scholomance is dark, dark, dark. I’ll need a good long break before I’d want to revisit it.

19 thoughts on “Book Review: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

  1. I’m glad to see another perspective of this book. Most reviews I’ve read are positive ones. I have a copy of this that I plan to read at some point, but I will temper my anticipation just a little:-)

  2. Great review! I keep doubting about picking this one up, it gets so many mixed reviews.. And I have read and not liked Spinning Silver, but the premise of this one sounds good!

    (www.evelynreads.com)

    • I loved Uprooted, but haven’t read Spininng Silver yet (although I want to). I have such mixed feelings about this book! I’m going to keep an eye out for other people’s reviews — maybe they’ll see something in it that I didn’t.

  3. Great reivew, Lisa. I’m not sure I’ll pick up this series, but I like to know what’s out there. As for the dreadlocks reference, an editor should have caught it. And as for whether the hissing sentence is homage to Pratchett, I’d say it was a lift, maybe unintentional.

  4. Great review, Lisa! I do really want to give this one a try at some point, but I’ve seen enough reviews to know it’s probably not a book I want to read in the hell year that is 2020–like you, I need something with a bit more cheer.

  5. Thank you for the great review! I loved Uprooted (audiobook on your rec) and Spinning Silver almost as much. I was let down by the first Temeraire book (even though I’ve enjoyed Patrick O’Brian books—-Dana Stabenow says it’s O’Brian with dragons…), but maybe my boredom was influenced by the audiobook narration, particularly the portrayal of Temeraire’s voice. I’ve been looking forward to your impressions of this new book because the summary isn’t all that appealing. I think I’ll pass. Re hissing, I like to think the sentence is a homage to Pratchett and maybe also at the same time a tongue-in-cheek forestalling of an editor’s pen. 😀

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