A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik, is a super interesting and clever book. This first installment in her new Scholomance series is a refreshing take on the classic wizard school trope. Novik made a lot of choices in the structure of the book that initially seemed very strange, but actually give Education a lot of character, identity, and differentiation. Novik is a seasoned author, and it’s great to see that she is still able to produce original and imaginative story ideas. Although Education has a couple of missteps, overall I think it is a stunning success and the start to a very promising new fantasy series.
A Deadly Education tells the story of El, short for Galadriel, in a school that is actively trying to kill her, in a good way. In the world of Scholomance, most people can do magic and the world is filled with these horror manifestations that try to murder mages. In order to noticeably lower the death rate among children, a bunch of people came together to build a magical school that serves as a training gauntlet of sorts to make students stronger. While the school still is filled with monsters that try to knife you, it’s treated as more of a learning exercise to prepare you for the real world – where the monsters have much larger knives. I could write an entire review based just on the fascinating mechanical working of the school (the Scholomance), but all you really need to know is that freshmen come in at the top level, the school slowly rotates downwards over four years, and that seniors need to battle their way out of the school at the end through all sorts of demons that have been building up over the years to jump the graduating class.
Not a lot of worldbuilding goes into why the world is this way, but I get a distinct impression that these juicy details are going to be explored in future books. In the meantime, the primary focus of book one is not dying – which is somewhat of an issue for El. Each mage has an affinity, which means they attract and learn spells of a sort more easily. Learning to use your affinity to its greatest potential is how you survive – but El’s affinity is a little unorthodox: she has a natural affinity for apocalyptic spells. While the ability to make a tactical nuke sounds incredible, it’s not super helpful against a lone person with a knife. So while most of El’s classmates are trying to learn how to pack more power into their arcana, El is trying to learn how to downsize almost anything she learns.
El’s problem is a really interesting one and not one I have encountered in fantasy so far. In essence, Novik has built this wonderful paradox where the protagonist has untold power and feels incredible – but her strengths aren’t relevant to her problems. The issues that El faces, namely “not getting shanked,” are clearly defined so that while she feels enormously strong she also feels like she has real difficulties she needs to work through. It’s a wonderful balance that leads to some really interesting problems with unorthodox solutions. Novik never goes too far and makes El feel unrelatable in her strength, and El is satisfying to project yourself onto.
The other really unique quirk of the book is that it contains an enormous amount of exposition. The dialogue is occasional, and the vast majority of the book is composed of El explaining events, magic, people, the school, politics, history, cultures, and anything else you can think of in a running monologue in her own head, diary-style. The book is primarily tell instead of show, which normally would be a recipe for a low score. The thing is, it works for the narrative style of the book. El’s inner dialogue takes a little time to get used to, but it rapidly becomes clear that her cyclical roundabout storytelling has sharp points and that everything she is telling the reader is relevant in clever ways. The narrative feels like Novik drops a giant puzzle onto the table and starts slowly putting it together. It doesn’t always work. Some of the sections feel glacially paced and weighed down by tangents that could have been cut down. But most of the time the narrative all comes together nicely.
The world is grim, dark, and delicious. The Scholomance is kickass, the spells are cool, and the monsters are terrifying. Novik puts a lot of thought and detail into the minutia of her world and it builds to a very well-realized environment that has clear rules. It’s a very different path to the more whimsical styles of other magic schools like Hogwarts. The Scholomance has forms and rules that will be obeyed or it will yeet you into the void. I love this more rigid take on magic that makes it feel closer to studying science or language. The Scholomance feels like an actual school, the reverse of which is a surprisingly common problem with magical school books.
The characters are also interesting. El is an angry, bitter girl who lacks friends. Her penchant for apocalyptic magic has alienated her and makes her life extremely difficult. El starts out pretty unlikable, but as she moves past her anger and frustration and builds connections with others in the school she changes into a lovable rascal. The supporting cast is equally memorable and collectively they transform from a group of strangers into a lovable group of rapscallions that steal your heart.
Novik has drawn some criticism for her takes on various cultures in Education, and I have mixed feelings about it. There is a small selection of passages that contain some racially insensitive ideas. Novik has apologized for these and is having them changed in future copies of the book, which is all we can really ask for as readers. On the other hand, I think these mistakes were made in an attempt to make the book feel as inclusive and as multicultural as possible – i.e., with good intentions. Education takes place on Earth, and Novik goes into detail about how the various countries, and the wizard enclaves that run them, are dealing with hostile monsters. Generally, I really enjoy Novik’s attempt to pull in less used cultures to the book but it seems as though Novik made a few missteps on the way to try to include as many people as she could.
A Deadly Education is a fresh take on one of my favorite tropes and I really hope that Novik turns it into a long-reaching several book series like her Temeraire story. The problems the characters face are unique, and their solutions are thrilling to read. The characters show real growth, the world is fascinating, and the plot is engaging. This book is pretty much the full package.
Rating: A Deadly Education – 9.5/10
P.S. The book as a physical object is gorgeous, so this is one you will probably want to physically own if you are a mixed media reader like me.