by Naomi Novik
„Reader, I ran the fuck away.“
A witty, hard, amazingly sarcastic masterpiece featuring a sassy, brilliant protagonist with one of the most entertaining voices in modern Fantasy. Naomi Novik’s ‚A Deadly Education‘ turns the whole genre conventions of magical school books upside down and is both original and blessed with a compelling protagonist.
First of all: if you’re here because you think that ’scholomance‘ is a mixture of ’school‘ (as in magical school) and ‚romance‘ (as in lovey-lovey, kissy-kissy romance), then I strongly advise you to look elsewhere because you’ll find none of this here. Okay, there may be a small, tiny romance which is slowly coming to existence especially at the end of this one, but this is very much NOT A ROMANCE. Also, regarding, the ‚magical school‘ bit: if you’re here cause you’re waiting for the next Harry Potter-copy with people who have just different names and a better plot than Cursed Child, you’re also wrong here. This is NOT HOGWARTS, and it’s also not Brakebills. This is the scholomance. Wanna know the difference? Lemme tell you the difference between them, people. To this day, I’d still leave my complete life behind if a stressed-out owl came flying in through the window and finally gave me my long-overdue Hogwarts letter.
I’d probably even go to Brakebills, but Brakebills sounds like too much work and studying, and I’ve always been more an Hemione-ish Gryffindor than a respectable hard-working Ravenclaw, so maybe I wouldn’t even get into Brakebills. But if I ended up at the Scholomance (where you just end up, this crazy school just sucks you in like a mad vacuum cleaner!), I’d freak out completely. Hell, I’d prefer Westeros over the Scholomance. Because going to school at the Scholomance basically means that you’re either breakfast for monsters – or you’re dinner for monsters. Not sure if those monsters eat lunch in between.
Yes, people, there are monsters at this school. And no, they aren’t such ridiculous things like flobberworms or bowtruckles or thestrals. No, I’m talking about stuff like blast-ended skrewts, and disgusting things like that heart of the forest-spirit-thingy in Witcher 3 in the swamp which the Crones want you to kill. And things like Aragog or Shelob. Yikes.
Anyway, these monsters are at this school trying to devour as many tasty kids as possible, because guess what, successfully graduating from this school means that you’re one of the few survivors. Because not only do these monsters spend their year killing as many students as possible, no, the worst of them who are too big to climb up through the shafts of the Scholomance are also waiting in a big hall beneath the school for the graduation ceremony. Why? Because at graduation, the seniors have to leave the school through that same hall. Obviously, a massacre or a feast, depending on which perspective you take, ensues and a lot of those seniors don’t make it out of the school alive. And while there are monsters and monsters everywhere in this school, there’s one thing every other school has that’s missing from the Scholomance: there are no teachers. Like, at all. Obviously, no one wants to get a job there. So the school itself teaches those kids by giving them tasks and stuff.
So this is the world ‚A Deadly Education‘ takes place in. Doesn’t sound too cozy now, does it? Of course, things complicate over the course of this one, because there’s Orion Lake, the shining and gallant hero who spends his time saving the other students and killing those monsters. A big, fat round of applause for Orion, everybody? Wait, what? Why are you not clapping? Oh, that’s right! I forgot to mention that all of those lovely monsters come to the Scholomance because they’re hungry and they want to eat the children. And as Orion saves so many of the children, more and more monsters come in, especially more of the bigger ones. Which complicates things. A lot. Because the current senior class will have to leave through a graduation hall that is filled with adorable monsters like never before.
We follow the hero, Orion Lake- wait, what? We don’t follow Orion? No, that’s right, we don’t follow the shining, brave Gryffindor who wants to save the world and everyone in it – instead we follow rude, grim, and friendless El. Her real name’s Galadriel, but she’s the complete opposite of the Galadriel you’re thinking about now. She’s not this one:
She’s more like this one:
She’s sarcastic, sassy and she hates Orion Lake. We love her, people. Novik shows us this terrible and fascinating school through El’s eyes, and her perspective is an entertaining and awesome one.
„Please tell me you aren’t trying to go out with me.“
It didn’t seem likely: no one ever has. It’s not that I’m ugly; on the contrary, I’ve been growing increasingly beautiful in a tall and alarming way, as befits the terrible dark sorceress I’m meant to be, at least until I presumably collapse into a grotesque crone. Boys often think for about ten seconds that they might want to go out with mem and then they look into my eyes or talk to me and I suppose get the strong impression I’m likely to devour their souls or something.
So, we follow El through the book. There’s a lot of Orion, cause he saves her life from time to time, but as I said, this magnificent monster-show is told by her, and that’s so much better than listening to Orion. Because who wants to listen to the shining hero all the time? I don’t. I very much prefer El roasting everyone in the vicinity, thank you very much.
I could listen to her all day. Which I did, by reading this book, haha. Anyway, of course there are reasons why El is that bitter and sarcastic. For once, other than Orion, she doesn’t belong to the social elite of the magical society (the enclaves) and so she doesn’t enjoy the perks of being a rich kid – having a better chance to survive, for example.
The enclavers made it sound like a grand act of generosity when they changed it to bring us all in, but of course it was never that. We’re cannon fodder, and humans shields, and useful new blood, and minions, and janitors and maids, and thanks to all the work the losers in here do trying to get into an alliance and an enclave after, the enclave kids get extra sleep and extra food and extra help, more than if it was only them in here. And we all get the illusion of a chance. But the only chance they’re really giving us is the chance to be useful to them.
However, the biggest reason why El is who she is is her special affinity. Each of these kids have an affinity their magic specializes on, and while some are good with artifacts or animals, El’s affinity is that…well, basically, she’s a nuclear weapon. El’s affinity is to kill of lots of things and people.
„Don’t you like practicing your affinity?“ he said, defensive.
„My affinity is laying waste to multitudes, so I haven’t had much opportunity to try the experience,“ I said.
He snorted, as though I were joking. I didn’t try to persuade him. It’s easy to claim to be a massively powerful dark sorceress; no one‘s going to believe me until I prove it, preferably with hard evidence.
Yes, I can learn a hundred closely related cleaning cantrips in a row, but my limit for useful spells is somewhere around nine or ten a day. I haven’t found a limit for spells of mass destruction. I can learn a hundred of those just by glancing at them, and I never forget any of them. Which is lucky, I suppose, because I have to go through a hundred of those before I ever get one of the useful ones.
And oh boy, how I do love it. The incredible irony of this whole thing, of this whole concept, this whole book of rude, cynic El roasting everyone with words while she could roast all of them with her magic easily. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t even use bad magic to increase her powers, cause she’s accepted her mother sort of vegan magic. So of course there’s a soft core beneath all of that ‚Don’t look at me, I’m the Supreme Evil Witch of the West‘-talk.
For the last three years, I’ve had to think and plan and strategize how I’m going to survive every single meal in here, and I’m so tired of it, and I’m tired of all of them, hating me for no reason, nothing I’ve ever done. I’ve never hurt any of them. I’ve been tying myself in knots and working myself to exhaustion just to avoid hurting any of them. It’s so hard, it’s so hard in here all the time…
So much for the plot and the main characters. The side characters are also great, and the world-building of this whole incredible school is excellent, too, just like the slowly developing friendships.
„You’re welcome“, I said. „Are you going to be all right getting to your next lesson?“
„Yeah?“ he said, in even more doubtful tones.
„Do you need to be walked?“ I asked, eyeing him.
„No, I don’t need – what are you doing?“ he burst out.
„Why are you being this nice?“ he said. „Are you mad at me for something?“
„No!“ I said (….). „Am I allowed to be in a good mood occasionally, or do I need to register this madness with the authorities first?“ I snapped instead. „Go on and fall into the rubbish chute if you like. I’m off to the workshop.“
He looked relieved as I huffed off away from him.
So why only four starts? The writing, people. While I loved this whole sarcasm, there were too many info-dumps within these pages. People started having a conversation with El and then suddenly there were six of pages about who these people are, and from which enclave they come, and who their friends are, and why they are talking to her at all. I also didn’t like that teensy, lovey, kissy-kissy things that came up at the end, as they didn’t fit the rest of the book. I liked that sarcastic tone, no need to water it down, just give me that hard stuff, thank you.
Apart from this, I loved this. I really, really, loved this, and while the big climax at the end could’ve been better, I’m okay with it being not completely epic, because this is only the first book, after all. What I also loved was the cliffhanger at the end, because it really makes you wonder what the hell it has to mean. So, while Orion doesn’t get that big, fat round of applause, Naomi Novik certainly does. A hell of a book which I highly recommend if you’ve got the same dark, sarcastic humour like me. You’ll probaly love it even if you don’t, but it certainly helps.