review by Christopher G. Nuttall
A Deadly Education (Scholomance, Book I)
– Naomi Novik
“I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life. I hadn’t really cared much about him before then one way or another, but I had limits. It would’ve been all right if he’d saved my life some really extraordinary number of times, ten or thirteen or so—thirteen is a number with distinction. Orion Lake, my personal bodyguard; I could have lived with that. But we’d been in the Scholomance almost three years by then, and he hadn’t shown any previous inclination to single me out for special treatment.
“Selfish of me, you’ll say, to be contemplating with murderous intent the hero responsible for the continued survival of a quarter of our class. Well, too bad for the losers who couldn’t stay afloat without his help. We’re not meant to all survive, anyway. The school has to be fed somehow.”
One of the fundamental truths of the Wizard School genre is that most wizarding schools are not the sort of places the average parent wants to send their sons or daughters. Hogwarts, for example, would have been shut down years ago if it was accountable to OFSTED and the same can probably be said for Whitehall, Jude’s and every other magic school I’ve created. The combination of poor teaching, poor teachers and magical bullying would be quite bad enough even if the school didn’t have a tradition of rounding out the year with an attack by the local dark lord. This is, of course, part of the point; the schools may be dangerous, from a parent’s point of view, but pretty fun to anyone who doesn’t have to stay there and deal with the horror.
A Deadly Education takes the concept of a dangerous wizarding school to extremes. The Scholomance – a name with a long history in the genre – was founded by a collection of magicials enslaves to provide education for their children. There are no teachers – the school itself provides the education, in a manner that can only be described as perverse. It is also a magnet for deadly creatures of all shapes and sizes, a problem made worse by the fact the school rests within a location that practically breeds the creatures. Nowhere is safe, creating an impression of Harry Potter meeting The Hunger Games and Alien. The kids are forced into alliances to survive, often facing the blunt choice between killing their fellows or being killed themselves. It is deadly enough to make Hogwarts look relatively safe.
The story follows El Higgins, a young girl sucked into the Scholomance when she entered the right age group (among other atrocities, the school effectively kidnaps kids who have no magical background). We are told that El has a dark power, but we see relatively little of it (beyond the fact her long-dead father’s family were willing to kill her as a baby, because of some dumb prophecy). We do see her forming, somewhat by accident, a friendship/romance with Orion Lake and using it to form a circle of newer friends that work together to save themselves. El is an interesting choice for hero, at least at first, and I found her more than a little off-putting. She grows better as the story evolves, particularly as she starts to understand what’s really going on.
Like many post-Potter books, A Deadly Education works to deconstruct some aspects of the universe. The enclave kids are de facto magical aristocracy, with advantages and prilivages some of them don’t really understand. This makes them the target of a great deal of resentment from the rest, although – as El notes – the enclave kids are just doing what everyone else would to survive. The high price of aristocracy is pointed out, as some of the kids desperately fighting to get themselves into an enclave find themselves unwillingly attached to aristocrats who commit atrocities to save themselves. So too is the bitterness that undermines any hope of dealing with the crisis in the school.
It also touches on a hero, Orion Lake, who’s position in the school is largely based on being the hero. He’s a dogooder who does good because it’s the only way to keep his place. He comes across as ignorant at times, not asking questions about what’s around him until El forces him to think … not unlike some particularly sour impressions of Harry Potter. The relationship between the two is based on a surprisingly solid base – El is the first person who isn’t overawed by him – and can be surprisingly sweet at times.
A Deadly Education does manage to pose an overwhelming problem, with a surprisingly neat solution. It both concludes the book plot and manages to leave room for book two (Amazon says there’s at least one more coming.) It does point out issues with Harry Potter while forging an identity of its own. Overall, it manages to be a fairly decent (and reasonably clean) YA fantasy. Sex is mentioned, but never seen; the only sexual contact within the book is a kiss between the two characters. It does include a diverse cast of characters, including El herself, but this never drags the book down.
The book’s weaknesses, however, threaten to drag it down. El comes across as more than a little unsympathetic at first, as I said above. There’s a lot of infodumping in the first few chapters, not least because the story opens with El already at the school and there’s a lot we don’t know about it. There’s also the fact that the system itself is practically designed to be horrible, thus suggesting the magical world is either evil or demented. Indeed, only the fact that kids are practically kidnapped when they’re transported to the school explains its continued survival. It makes one wonder what might happen if the school fell to the monsters …
Overall, A Deadly Education is a pretty good short read, once you get through the first chapters. I recommend it.
You can download a free sample and explore the school here.
Christopher G. Nuttall can be found at his blog Chrishanger