Read: 6th October 2020 – 9th October 2020
Spoilers in review: Yes but nothing major
Rep: half indian main character, chinese side character, indian side character, lots of non-white side characters, note that all the rep is poor
CW: violence, death, murder, difficulty attaining food, racism within narrative
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.
The narrative style of this book was enjoyable! El’s character shone through with everything she tells the reader, and it was very clear that she was the one telling the story. There was one moment in the book where she acknowledged that she was telling the story to a ‘reader’ and I loved it.
This book doesn’t have much of a concrete plot, and not enough happens that I could properly describe the plot without explaining the events of the last 10%. A lot of the word count is dedicated to infodumps about either the world or El’s backstory. Other than that we follow El over the course of the last few weeks of her second to last year at the Scholomance. She nearly dies many times, is unphased when other people die because that’s a regular occurance, and she gradually forms some actual friendships. Usually I enjoy stories that are more character driven than plot driven, where less happens in favour of us seeing more of the characters interacting and developing, but unfortunately I think that Novik missed the mark here. This wasn’t so much character driven as it was exposition driven.
It had its moments though. At the start of the book, El doesn’t have any friends, and she’s never had any friends. She’s on speaking terms with some people but that’s about as far as it goes. She’s lonely. When her association with the most popular boy in her year means that the rest of the rich and privileged kids suddenly want her around, she regards them with suspicion at the very least. And when she’s forced to acknowledge that she has somehow gained friends who want to spend time with her for her, and who accept her for who she is, she struggles to believe it and has to fight the urge to cry. Novik did do well with this, and I saw myself in El’s reactions. I’ve been there. I’m still surprised sometimes that people actually like me. These passages were worth reading, and I’m glad that I did.
But. The representation is abysmal. El is half Indian, but the only connection she has with that is when a family member declared her to be irredeemably evil as a child and tried to have her killed. There’s a lot of references to people treating her badly and not liking her as she grew up, but it’s all attributed to a ~bad feeling~ that she gives off, and not because people were racist. The one time she does say something about that possibility, she doesn’t say that people were wrong to be saying that, leaving the ‘weak tea’ comparison as the only physical description of her that we get. El somehow knows everybody’s country of origin on sight, even if she’s never seen or spoken to someone before, leading me to almost believe they must be wearing badges or something that declares where they’re from. The throwaway statement about it being hard to trade spells in Hindi because all the Hindi speakers also speak English only makes sense if you assume that English is inherently more valuable and more versatile than Hindi, which is simply untrue. Yi Liu is Cho Chang all over again. The magic system relies on ‘mana’, and while El does say that this is only called that because it’s what’s currently trendy in-universe, there isn’t even the briefest mention about how mana is rooted in Polynesian culture, and so appropriating it like this is pretty shitty, actually.
If you want a more detailed explanation of the issues then this review is a good place to start.
It was also very obvious to me as a British reader that Novik is an American trying to write a British character and not doing a particularly good job of it. Some American English managed to sneak through, and some of what El had to say sounded unnatural to me. This is a much more minor issue in comparison to everything else that was going on, however.
I didn’t hate my time reading this, and there were a couple of good ideas in here! But I can’t in good faith recommend this book to anyone, and its problems are so deeply baked into the narrative that it would take a lot more than simply removing one paragraph (as Novik has recently said will be happening) to fix it.
I received an e-arc through Netgalley in return for an honest review. Any quotes may differ in the published version.
About the Author
An avid reader of fantasy literature since age six, Naomi Novik is also a history buff with a particular fascination with the Napoleonic era and a fondness for the work of Patrick O’Brian and Jane Austen. She lives with her husband and daughter in New York City along with many purring computers.