A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
Del Rey, pb, £7.37
Reviewed by Lucy Powell
Author of the Temeraire series, Spinning Silver and Uprooted, Naomi Novik’s newest release, A Deadly Education, is an exciting addition to the realms of YA “magical wizarding school” stories that line the fantasy shelves and the first in her new Scholomance series.
The premise? The students in this Scholomance – a school for magically gifted individuals – must graduate or die. Overrun with monsters that look like something out of your nightmares, the students fight to stay alive in a place where even the mashed potatoes in the dining hall can be deadly. We follow the protagonist Galadriel “El” Higgins, a wizard with the gifts to cause biblical levels of mass destruction, as she tries to not only survive but make friends that might help her get out alive, and downplay the fact that – if she so chose – she could level the school and its inhabitants with one simple spell.
There are a lot of the parts of this book that I liked. Novik’s worldbuilding throughout the entire novel is vibrant, dark, and whimsical. From the details about different types of magicians and their affinities work, the building of the school, how spells are cast, and the types of monsters (named “mals”), the “deadly” part of the education provided is cleverly driven home on every page. The cast of characters is diverse, too, a point in its favour where wider POC representation – especially in a main character (El is half-Indian) – is sorely needed in more fantasy wizarding books, although it could have been managed a little less clumsily.
As I read, I spent much of my time wanting to know more about the world and the setting than I perhaps cared much about the main storyline. In some ways, the amount of information shoved into the first few chapters detracts somewhat from the plot getting underway.
That is not to say the storyline or characters aren’t engaging. El is a likeable enough protagonist. An outsider who is spiky around the edges, who serves dryly sarcastic and scathing observations about the school and its students, I slowly warmed to her as the novel progressed. And when she meets good-natured, popular mal hunter hero Orion, a student with a gift for killing monsters and saving students, the two – understandably – bicker.
But these character’s unlikely frenemy-friendship, turned accidental romance, is one I wasn’t quite sold on. El uses Orion to gain trust and friends from enclave (rich kids who come from magically protected areas) and normal students. While Orion’s growing crush on her is evident, their relationship felt a little confusing to follow at times. However, without sharing spoilers (and there are some), I’m intrigued to see what Novik does with these two in the series to develop this.
Indeed, Novik sets up the ending of the book smoothly. There are nail-biting fights, horrific deaths, and dramatic reveals that unfold in the latter third that keeps you hooked. One crucial twist at the end reveals that there is still much left still to be explored, and as graduation rolls around, I, for one, cannot wait to see what happens to El and her friends as they go into their final – and most deadly – year yet.