A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik (book review).

January 14, 2022 | By | Reply More

There have always been school stories. Most of us have read them at some point. Post-war there was ‘Billy Bunter of Greyfriars’ and the ‘Chalet Girls’ books. More recently, the ‘Harry Potter’ books are the most wildly known of the fantasy schools, though there are many others such as the college in Rachel Caine’s ‘Morganville Vampire’ novels, P.C. & Kristen Cast’s ‘House Of Night’ series or Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Rithmatic Academies’ in ‘The Rithmatist’.

What they have in common is that they are boarding schools and no parents around, just a selection of teachers who are often an encumbrance to the adventures of the students. Because of the set-up, these books have either been written for teens (younger and older) or can be counted as YA depending on the age and hormonal state of the main characters. Naomi Novik’s ‘A Deadly Education’ joins the cadre of school stories.

The Scholomance is a school unlike any other in a real or fantasy world. It exists outside the real world. While most of the world is populated by normal, mundane humans, there are some who have a magical ability. Magic comes in two forms: mana which is benign and can be used constructively and malia which dark magic and is destructive in nature. Also roaming the world are maleficaria (mals). They don’t normally bother mundanes but target anyone with magic, killing them and feeding on the magic. Since all the trainee wizards are in the Scholomance, mals are concentrated there. It is a question of survival of the fittest. Not everyone will get out of the school alive. Students don’t have any choice but to attend.

The narrator is Galadriel, El for short, and it is her third year. She knows that no-one likes her, something about her makes others avoid her, so she compensates by being rude and spikey. Mals hide everywhere, even the food may be contaminated and, to destroy them, she needs mana. She can create it by doing positive things such as push-ups or crochet. She stores it in crystals. Her ambition is to survive graduation at the end of her fourth year and find an enclave to offer her a place. The enclaves are where most of the wizards live and provide safety from mals. At graduation, the students have about fifteen minutes to run for the exit through hordes of hungry mals. Not all make it. El’s father didn’t.

What changes the dynamics is Orion Lake. He is one on the New York enclave. He has a penchant for killing mals to the extent that he goes hunting for them. It is his way of accumulating mana. He begins following her around when one of the other girls disappears and he suspects her of being a malecifier, a user of malia. She begins to get annoyed after the second time he saves her life. As the dynamics among the students shifts, they realise there is a big problem.

Orion is killing too many mals which means the remaining, nastier ones are getting very hungry and venturing up through the Scholomance to where the less experienced and therefore easier prey are housed. When graduation day comes, there will be so many hungry mals in the graduation hall that very few will get out. They need to make alliances to solve the problem.

This is a school story unlike any other, partly because not everyone is going to complete their education. There are no tutors. It is the ultimate in remote learning with the magic providing appropriate worksheets and penalties for failing to complete them. There are no adults in evidence at all.

The plot proceeds at an alarming pace with danger, literally, around every corner. There are pauses for contemplation which prevents the mind being overwhelmed both for the characters and the readers. Novik built a reputation with her ‘Temeraire’ novels about a dragon squadron fighting in the Napoleonic wars. There were issues with the biology and ecology of the dragons but she has shown great development in her skills with the development of this new series. ‘A Deadly Education’ begins with an attention catching first sentence and finishes with another. They make to reader want turn the pages and seek out the next volume. This is a thoroughly enjoyable YA novel that will appeal to all ages also deals with more serious issues.

Pauline Morgan

January 2022

(pub: Del Rey, 2021. 313 page enlarged paperback. Price: $17.00 (US), $23.00 (CAN), £ 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-593-12850-3)

check out website: www.randomhousebooks.com/

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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