A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
The publisher’s blurb tells me this is a dark Harry Potter for adults. Just like that, I open the pages to the world of the Scholomance, a sentient school for magic built to protect its students but preyed upon by the evil creatures who seek to feed off young magic. Don’t sit down to study without shining a light under the desk, don’t go to the bathroom alone for fear of what might come up the drains. Don’t take anyone’s friendship at face value.
Everything comes with a price, and if you don’t belong to one of the enclaves, if your parents were independent and you don’t have group resources to draw on, so much the worse for you. Don’t fall behind in classes, or the Scholomance will punish you. Death awaits at every corner, and challenges abound until you make your final dash for freedom through the Graduation Hall – if you survive the monsters crowding before the exit gates to take their pick in a final test.
El – Galadriel – is all alone at the Scholomance. Yet she’s managed to survive into her third year, being extra careful, despite a dark prophecy hanging over her head, and having to control a murderous and innate dark force within her that she can’t let slip. She’s a paradox – destined to harbour the power to destroy, mixed with a high moral code and sense of honour. She isn’t good at making herself liked. She’s sarcastic. Even her few friends admit that when she arrives in the room it ‘feels like rain’. But to the reader, she is refreshingly funny, sardonic, and completely irresistible.
The detail with which A Deadly Education was woven blew my mind. Naomi Novik’s clever use of the simple concepts of light and dark and the need for balance of good and bad creates a sophisticated world. As El is dark, so is there the white knight hero Orion Lake who rushes around the school saving every student that he can – something that the forces that be won’t allow to go on forever. Opposites attract, and El and Orion enter into an unlikely friendship that fuels the story as El navigates (among numerous dangers) the new position at school in which his popularity places her. In addition, of course, the growing threats to their lives on a daily basis.
This is a complex world, built up layer by layer. There are a number of sections that were filled with information necessary to build the background and context of the story. This could divert attention from the flow of the story, but I appreciated it as showing the depth and the imaginative flicks and spinning turns of the author’s imagination. This information is necessitated because El has been living in this world a while, as a third year student, and now has to introduce us to it. One piece of information that wasn’t shared – I was desperate to know more about El’s dark curse – but it looks like this will have to wait for the next book. I hope that Naomi Novik is a fast writer.
I love a good fantasy, and this was a good fantasy. I couldn’t stop reading – during breakfast, itching to leave the dinner table to pick it back up, and I did pick it back up but didn’t wait to leave the dinner table – and wish it were longer than its 313 pages. It’s easily readable for both young adults and adults. The pencil sketches in the back pages of a couple of the characters’ dormitory rooms add a quaint touch.
Reviewer: Susannah Whaley
Del Rey, RRP $37