A Deadly Education – Learn To Love It

41hu2u1muhlA 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
-Andrew

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.

His Majesty’s Dragon – A Good Ole English Time

I have finally gotten around to reading one of the most popular fantasy series from the last decade, Temeraire, by Naomi Novik. The nine book series starts with His Majesty’s Dragon, and has just concluded last year with its final installment. The series is a historical fiction set in the Napoleonic Wars, with almost everything the same except that everyone has dragons. This book has been on my to do list for a long time and I was excited to see if it lived up to the hype.

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Our protagonist is a man named Laurence, former captain of His Majesty’s Navy, who gets unfortunately coerced into the aerial corps. Laurence, and the ship under his command, open the book by capturing a French vessel that contains a dragon egg about to hatch. Due to the value and importance of dragons to the war against France, the officers of the ship decide they need to have someone try and imprint with the dragon as it hatches to recruit it for England’s forces. Unsurprisingly, the dragon (Temeraire) imprints on Laurence.

The rest of the book follows Laurence as he transitions from his life as a naval man to the air force and begins his training with Temeraire. Novik does a great job of showing the life of a dragon rider, and the training of Temeraire had me captivated from the moment that they set down at boot camp. The dragon corps and its effect on England’s wartime strategies are very well fleshed out and integrated into the history of the Napoleonic wars. That being said, while Novik did a great job showing how dragons have impacted the current era wars of England, there was little to no indication of how the advent of war dragons affected the course of human history. It felt as though they had just showed up right before the start of this book and the rest of history stayed pretty much the same. However, this is an instance where I am hoping that the historical effects of dragons is explored in the later sequels.

In terms of characters, we kind of get a mixed boat. I was a big fan of Temeraire. The dragons have a lot of personality, and watching Temeraire explore the world and learn things was incredibly endearing. On the other hand, Laurence is a bit of a wet noodle. He is the most stereotypical English character I have ever read, whose idea of a good time is queuing in a line. While Laurence doesn’t really detract from the story, another reviewer I saw put it best when she said “we could have had Jack Sparrow, but instead we got James Norrington”. Moving past our leads, I found the support cast very strong. Laurence spends a good part of the book recruiting a crew for Temeraire, and I found his underlings and fellow dragon captains a lot of fun.

Overall, the book was fun but slightly on the dull side. The final conflict of book is a bit of a let down, but the build up and the reveals are exciting. I will definitely be continuing the series, as I suspect that it is a bad idea to judge the series from just its first installment. Overall if you like dragons, historical fiction, or queuing in lines than this will be a great book for you.

Rating: His Majesty’s Dragon – 7.5/10

Uprooted – Just Go Read It Already

22544764Today I am doing a micro review, but know that I am doing it for your own good. Many of you have probably heard of Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, as it made a ridiculous number of “top book lists” last year; usually at the #1 spot. There is a good reason for this, it is a great book. However, Uprooted is one of those many things in life that it is best to go into knowing as little as possible. The less you know the more you will enjoy the journey the book takes you on, and it is a worthwhile adventure.

What I will tell you is that the story begins in a classic fairy tale setting with a village girl who has nothing special about her. She is given up as a tribute to the dragon who is lord over the village in exchange for protection and the book follows her life as it is completely uprooted. The book’s plot is clever and surprising (hence the need for the hush hush) and there are a lot of subtle things going on. For better and worse, the characters are very unique and memorable and stand out from traditional fantasy archetypes. On top of this, the magic is incredible. The magic of the book feels alive or real in a way I haven’t felt since I was a child reading Harry Potter, and that is truly saying something. I found myself attempting to cast spells in my mind as I read Uprooted and it was a transportive experience.

The one flaw I found with Uprooted was that pacing could at times be a bit jarring; jumping from long stretches of meandering to intense action with little warning. Other than that Uprooted is a stand out book that everyone should read; especially as it is fairly short and a standalone. Naomi Novik has made something truly magical in this book. While I am likely preaching to the choir as I seem to be the last person to get around to reading it, if you haven’t picked up and read Uprooted yet The Quill to Live recommends you do so.

Rating: Uprooted – 9.0/10