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.

Book Review: What You Wish For by Katherine Center

Title: What You Wish For
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: July 14, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From Katherine Center, the New York Times bestselling author of How to Walk Away comes a stunning new novel full of heart and hope.

Samantha Casey loves everything about her job as an elementary school librarian on the sunny, historic island of Galveston, Texas—the goofy kids, the stately Victorian building, the butterfly garden. But when the school suddenly loses its beloved principal, it turns out his replacement will be none other than Duncan Carpenter—a former, unrequited crush of Sam’s from many years before.

When Duncan shows up as her new boss, though, he’s nothing like the sweet teacher she once swooned over. He’s become stiff, and humorless, and obsessed with school safety. Now, with Duncan determined to destroy everything Sam loves about her school in the name of security—and turn it into nothing short of a prison—Sam has to stand up for everyone she cares about before the school that’s become her home is gone for good.

Samantha Casey loves her life on Galveston island. The librarian at a progressive, sunny, creative elementary school, she enjoys her students and her community, and absolutely loves Max and Babette, the school’s founders who have also become a surrogate family to her.

But when Max dies suddenly at his 60th birthday party, he leaves behind a community in chaos. The school’s board of directors, headed by Max and Babette’s horrible son-in-law, announces that he’s bringing in a new principal — and it’s a name from Sam’s past, Duncan Carpenter.

Years earlier, Sam taught at the same school as Duncan, where he was the teacher at the heart of all the fun. Duncan could be counted on to juggle on the playground, wear crazy shirts, institute wacky traditions, and in general act as the chief joy creator at the school. For Sam, the problem was that she was head over heels for Duncan, but as far as she could tell, he was barely aware of her existence. Her unrequited crush on Duncan was what finally prompted her to move away and start over, and life has been good since then.

It’s startling for Sam when Duncan shows up at the start of the school year and is nothing like she remembers. Instead of Hawaiian shirts and crazy ties, he wears a grey three-piece suit, has a respectable hair cut, and seems to care only about the school’s security measures. He deems the colorful murals in the hallways and cafeteria visually distracting, cancels all field trips, and seems intent on turning the school into a grey-walled prison.

Sam and Duncan butt heads from the beginning, but eventually they start to warm up to each other. After Sam helps Duncan home after a medical appointment, the relationship thaws even further, and finally Babette comes up with a challenge, in which Duncan has to do one joyful thing, as assigned by Babette, every day if he wants to keep his job. As he carries out his tasks, his partner ends up being Sam more often than not, and the two grow close despite their personal baggage and misunderstandings.

There’s a lot of good in What You Wish For, so let’s start there. Sam is just a lovely person, and her devotion to helping kids learn and develop a lifelong long of reading is wonderful. She chooses everyday to overcome the darkness of her past and embraces celebration, color, and joy. It’s a wonderful, life-affirming attitude, shared by Babette and Sam’s best friend Alice, and indeed the whole school seems to thrive in this vibrant approach to childhood and being open to experience.

I need to give a special shout-out to Alice, who is amazing. She’s the school math teacher, and wears a different math-themed t-shirt every day, and is just all around fabulous.

Sam’s personal background and the painful experiences she’s carried with her her whole life are well-described and very sympathetic. I won’t give away the details, but suffice it to say that while Sam embodies joyful living, she’s also very much hampered by a sense of fear and shame that keep her from allowing anyone to get too close to her, particularly in a romantic sense.

I did have some issues with this book, so I’ll share those as well. Duncan is so clearly a changed man when he shows up in Galveston, and it’s pretty simple to figure out why. (No spoilers from me, sorry!) When the truth is revealed to Sam, the details are still impactful, but it’s not like it’s a surprise in any way.

The school board’s chair, Kent Buckley, is a man described as someone you always refer to by both first and last name… and really, why? Even his in-laws? It’s just weird. Anyway, he’s awful (as he’s supposed to be), and I couldn’t quite buy that such a wonderful school would allow a jerk like that to pull all the strings and make the big decisions.

I also didn’t really feel Sam and Duncan’s romance. They go from antagonists to friends to more pretty quickly, and while it turns out that he also had feelings for her back in their earlier days teaching together, I’m not sure that I could see them overcoming their differences quite so easily. In any case, they just really don’t have much chemisty, so I wasn’t terribly invested in their relationship.

What You Wish For is a quick read, and while it deals with grief and other serious matters, there’s a sweetness too in the sense of community and the absolutely lovely and supportive way that the school at large forms its own extended family.