Wednesday 23 December 2020

#CBR12 Book 84: "A Deadly Education" by Naomi Novik

Page count: 336 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 59 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Official book description:
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. Sold yet?

This book has been described as a super-dark, female-led Harry Potter. Harry Potter goes to a boarding school and has magical powers - that's really where the similarity ends. Every single character in A Deadly Education is more interesting and well-rounded than any of those in the many books about 'Larry Porter, boy wizard' (the value brand knock-off my husband made up), and there is a lot more diversity as well. The Scholomance is a boarding school like no other, and the blurb isn't lying - it really is utterly deadly, and a large amount of the students there are not expected to survive past graduation. 

Galadriel (who goes by El - her mother is VERY hippy-dippy) is half Indian, but was rejected by her father's wealthy family due to the very sinister prophecy her grandmother proclaimed about her when they first saw El as a baby. Instead, she was raised by her mother (her father died during graduation to save El's mother, who was pregnant at the time) in a yurt in rural Wales. El's mother is all that is good and kind and self-sacrificing, so the balance of the universe has seen fit to give El dark powers that could literally destroy continents if she gave into temptation and really let herself get down with her bad side.

In this world, when magically gifted children start coming into their powers, all manner of malevolent creatures want to kill and eat them. To protect themselves, most magically adept people unite in various powerful enclaves, where they can fight off said monsters and demon-spawn. Apparently, adolescents are the tastiest, and are in so much danger outside in the real world, that a magical school was built to house them and keep the magical attacks contained to one place. There are no teachers in the Scholomance, and deadly challenges face the students every day, either from external malevolent supernatural forces, poisons or just other students trying to kill them to strengthen themselves. The graduation ceremony is literally the surviving seniors being sent through the lowest levels of the school, where all the deadliest, fiercest and hungriest monsters all dwell. If they can make it out alive, they graduate and can probably expect to go on to make a difference in the world of magic. 

Before golden boy Orion Lake came to the school, a lot more of the student body tended to die. Now, Orion has saved the lives of so many of his fellow students that a lot of the monsters that normally get fed by the unlucky kids who aren't careful or vigilant enough are getting very hungry and vastly more aggressive. El, who has never learned how to make friends, and fights every day not just to survive, but to tamp down on the school's constant encouragement for her to really embrace her evil potential, starts the book having decided she probably wants to kill Orion, but she settles for being really mean to him every chance she gets instead. Orion, who comes from a powerful New York enclave and has been used to people looking up to him and fawning over him his entire life, is puzzled by El's behaviour, but also seems to like her complete disregard of him, and a friendship begins to blossom between them. 

Over the course of the book, El starts gradually opening up and trusting a few others, as well, and seems to be making not only potential allies but actual friends for the first time in her life. She doesn't dare reveal to anyone just how powerful she is, but she tries her best to use her powers to help, rather than selfishly take care of herself, which in the end leads her, Orion, and a few others into an absolutely nerve-racking plan to try to even the odds for the soon to be graduating senior class.

While I never got past the first book of her Temeraire series (my complete disinterest in military history and campaigns won over my fondness for dragons), I have very much enjoyed her more recent fairytale-inspired fantasy novels. In this, she seems to be taking on the YA boarding school fantasy trope, but while the protagonists are teenagers, I would be wary of classifying the book as young adult. It may be too dark and violent for a lot of readers.

I suspect whether you warm to this book or not comes down to whether you can stand El as a character. She's the narrator and she's a tough nut to crack, especially in the first half of the book. A lot of the book is spent with El's internal monologue, which isn't exactly very sympathetic, at least until she starts making some friends, and it might be a bit exhausting sharing her headspace if you're not in the right mood. 

I absolutely loved this book, from the world-building, the absolutely brutal high concept of the magical school, the various monsters and dangers facing the students, and obviously the characters. El and Orion are both great, as are several of the students who El eventually befriend. My main complaint is that I wanted more romance - but I'll have to cross my fingers for more of that later in the series. Highly recommended, way more fun, creative, and inclusive than Harry Potter ever was. 

Judging a book by its cover: I really like the font and the very simple colour scheme of the novel. I like the clean lines of the illustrations, and how non-specific, yet slightly sinister and occult the design on the cover is. Depending on the edition, the background is either navy blue or black. I much prefer the black and gold to the blue and gold one. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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