Tuesday 12 November 2019

#CBR11 Book 79: "The School for Good and Evil" by Soman Chainani

Page count: 496 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Official book description:
The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.

This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good and Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.

But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…? 

There was a lot of potential here, and some very clever playing with traditional fairy tale tropes. Unfortunately, there was also quite a lot of things that didn't work for me - the chief one being Sophie, one of our two protagonists. I'm all for female characters getting to be as complex and potentially anti-heroic as male ones, but I don't think the author manages what he sets out to do with Sophie. She just comes across as a controlling, manipulative, prejudiced and narrow-minded b*tch for most of the book. She doesn't seem to care about anyone but herself and her own ambitions, completely unfazed by whom she hurts or takes advantage of to achieve her goals. She seemed like a very natural fit for the School of Evil.

On the flip side, Agatha, who is supposed to be the more palatable protagonist, is a little bit too timid and her lack of confidence grated on me after a while. Maya Angelou said "If someone shows you who they are, believe them" - well, Sophie time and time again shows herself to be an utterly awful "friend", a self-centred egomaniac with no real affection for Agatha. Our little emo Goth should have told Sophie to sod off, instead of spending most of the book risking herself to help her.

There's also a very contrived love triangle in this book, with Prince Whatshisface (I can't bother to look up his name - he's the son of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere - now that's a fun legacy) initially falling for Sophie based entirely on her looks, but unwillingly finding himself drawn towards Agatha again and again (he's a shallow jock, you can do way better, girl!).

Nevertheless, I liked the idea that famous fairy tale characters need to be trained for their jobs, be they the heroes and heroines or the villains and villainesses. That the ones that don't excel in their classes become henchpeople, helpers or even transformed into enchanted animals who help move the tales along. I liked a lot of the supporting characters, especially in the School of Evil (being able to summon chocolate at will is a cool magical power!), and the various classes and quests that the children had to participate in.

I wasn't really sure if these books were meant to be aimed at a YA or middle grade audience. Having now looked it up, these books appear to be marketed as middle grade, which I think is a bit strange considering some of the rather dark subject matter (Sophie straight up kills someone and apart from stabs of a guilty conscience, she never actually gets caught from this), Sophie's obsession with getting the attention of her prince and the way her outfits are described (let's just say that if these are meant to be characters under the age of 16-17, the suggestive nature of a lot of what Sophie fashions for herself is squicky AF). I really don't believe in controlling what teens read (please just read something, kids!), but I think some of the themes of this book are too mature for a middle grade audience.

There are also sections where the story rather drags and I kept putting the book down and forgetting about it. I know that there's a ton of books in this series, but at the moment, I'm not sure I'll keep reading. There are so many other shiny books out there competing for my attention.

Judging a book by its cover: The very cartoonish manga inspired covers for this series made me think they were meant for a much younger audience. As I mentioned above, it really wasn't made very clear what age the characters are supposed to be, and a lot of the themes read as if these were older teens, getting towards adulthood. I also thought that the dark-haired character on the cover was a boy, when it's supposed to be Agatha, one of our two protagonists.

Crossposted in Cannonball Read.

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