A Deadly Education (The Scholomance #1) by Naomi Novik (2020)
Fiction | Dark Fantasy | Magic School
Lesson One of the Scholomance: Learning has never been this deadly.
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.
pooled ink Review:
I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life.
OH MY WORD THIS BOOK WAS SO GOOD! I mean, I can see it maybe not being an uber mainstream hit, but I am totally vibing with it. Okay, let me back up real quick…
Naomi Novik first came onto my radar years ago with her novel Uprooted which everyone kept recommending for fantasy readers so I tried to read it and promptly fell asleep. Lol. I honestly couldn’t make it past the first maybe fifty pages and several of those pages I confess I skimmed. Everyone loved it and I felt like I should’ve too but for whatever reason I kept trying and trying and could not get into it so that was that and I gave no more thought to the famous Ms. Novik. Sorry, my point is not to put down Novik’s writing, because she’s obviously quite talented, but that I’ve tried reading Novik’s work before and it simply never clicked for me…until this book. Until THIS book.
“…Don’t even open your mouth in my direction, you overgrown lemming,” I snapped at Orion, who glared back, having in fact been just about to open his mouth.Pg. 260
Despite having deemed Novik’s writing style simply not my vibe, when I heard A Deadly Education described as Hogwarts run by Slytherin I was instantly excited to read it and more than willing to give her writing another try. Oh I am so glad I did. Just goes to show one should never completely write off an author!
I’m definitely going to back and try reading Uprooted again. Maybe it was just poor timing before.
So let’s get into the story…
Admittedly the dark and dangerous school in which this book is set is almost comically overdone rather than logical or realistic in any sense so my attention latched more onto the characters and story than the world building because if I paid too much attention to that then I’d snort and roll my eyes because, well, it’s just over the top! I mean, for generations adults have just given up on this school, allowing it to slaughter a stunning percentage of their children/future generations? A school that has evil disgusting and terrifying monsters lurking in their food, the showers, the shadows, the cupboards, the beds, everywhere?? A school where kids go hungry and forgo showers just to try and stay alive a bit longer, where they endure lethal monster attacks with incredible frequency as they remain imprisoned in this school with no way of escape (besides death) just for a chance to run the final gauntlet through a hall of horrors to the only exit that opens for seniors on graduation day?? So wildly unrealistic, truly. And yet once I shoved that notion into a forgotten crevasse in the back of my mind, it allowed the wild dangers to simply make the story even more exciting and I was able to welcome the adrenaline it sprinkled onto every interaction.
Everyone – almost everyone – uses a bit of malia here and there, stuff they don’t even think of as wicked. Magic a slice of bread into cake without gathering the mana for it first, that sort of thing, which everyone thinks is just harmless cheating. Well, the power’s got to come from somewhere, and if you haven’t gathered it yourself, then it’s probably coming from something living, because it’s easier to get power out of something that’s already alive and moving around. So you get your cake and meanwhile a colony of ants in your back garden stiffen and die and disintegrate.
Mum won’t so much as keep her tea hot with malia.
…At the moment, what I have to do is stand up and do five hundred jumping jacks in a row, in perfect form, keeping my focus tightly on my current storing crystal the whole time, to build enough mana so I could wash my floor without accidentally killing anything. I don’t cheat at all, not even a little. …With my particular gift, if I tried to cheat on a cleaning spell, it’s entirely possible I’d take out three of my neighbors to either side and this entire hall would end up the horrible gleaming clean of a newly sanitized morgue.Pg. 7-8; 20
Continuing with the world building, I really love how international Novik made this school and the magic system. Students from literally everywhere speaking all sorts of languages and dialects and it all poured with equal power into this world of magic. We got bits of the classes the students attend as well as the alliance system they’d self created to survive it all. Learning multiple languages was a boon because then you could have more spells in your belt. I dunno but I thought it was really cool and though we don’t get as much class time as we do in Harry Potter (especially since um there are no teachers…) it all blended in well with personal projects and allowed more focus on long-term goals rather than letting the story get bogged down with too many silly homework assignments.
…I should have just blown the bloody doors off in my freshman year and shown everyone back then. …meanwhile, at the first chance I got, I just started being as rude as I could to every enclave kid who crossed my path. I’d certainly done my very best to chase Orion off. If he wasn’t a towering weirdo who liked that in a person, I’d have succeeded.Pg. 184
Oo! I’ll also add that the Void or whatever was a cool concept. The way the entire school almost had a mind of its own and was impossible to discern whether it was good or bad but definitely aware was also a fun (terrifying) addition to this setting. There really is a lot of cool little world-building nuggets in this book and I cannot wait to learn more in the next one! And we’re just in the school itself right now, there are a thousand questions more about the lives of wizards once they graduate! Eep!
I’ve known even before I came to the Scholomance that my only chance for a halfway decent life – assuming I get out of here to have one at all – is to get into an enclave. That’s me and everyone else, then, but at least most independent wizards can find friends to club together and watch each other’s backs, build mana, collaborate a bit. Even if people liked me enough to keep me, which no one ever has, I wouldn’t be any use to them. Ordinary people want a mop in the cupboard, not a rocket launcher, and here I am struggling desperately for two hours just to turn up a spell to wash the floor.Pg. 16
Now that I’ve gushed over a nightmarish school from Hell that I genuinely never wish to visit ever, let’s talk characters!
I’ve noticed some people try to declare El, the main character, as a product of poor writing or some other such nonsense, but when I read those opinions all I heard was a description of a slightly sociopathic, primarily pragmatic Slytherin character and for me that made El way fun and interesting and had me doubly excited to read this. I was not disappointed, in fact El exceeded my expectations.
“You’re nice to people who are nice to you,” [Chloe] said.Pg. 299
Galadriel is an angry loner raised in a hippie commune yurt in Wales with no friends, few prospects, and oh yeah enough power to destroy the world. The daughter of a world famous healer and genuinely pure soul, it’s no shock to even El herself that no one knows her parentage because her personality and magic affinity is as different from her mom’s as one can get. Even her own great grandmother spouted off a prophecy of doom about her. El is literally set up to be the ultimate villain, a next level Voldemort if you will, and yet she doesn’t actually want to be. Does she fantasize about murder and mayhem? Sure. But when push comes to shove she’s a damn sight better than most of her fellow students in that hellhole even if choosing the right/noble thing pisses herself off while she’s doing it.
But on the way back, I burst out, “Just – why? What have I ever done that turns people off?”
I waited for the usual things: You’re rude, you’re cold, you’re mean, you’re angry, all the things people say to make it my fault, but she looked me over and frowned like she was really thinking about it, and then she said with decision, “You feel like it’s going to rain.”
But Aadhya was already waving her hands around and elaborating. “You know that feeling when you’re a mile away from anywhere, and you didn’t take your umbrella because it was sunny when you left, and you’re in your good suede boots, and suddenly it gets dark and you can tell it’s about to start pouring buckets, and you’re like Oh great…That’s what it feels like whenever you show up.”Pg. 114
Narrated by El, this book felt like I was finally getting the Harry Potter books from Malfoy’s POV haha. Stupid Potter getting all the glory and attention as if he’s the only student in this god forsaken school when he’s really nothing but a golden boy shoving his big nose into other people’s business and held aloft by his disgustingly adoring friends and family *Angsty Rage* Except in this case instead of Malfoy and Harry it’s El and Orion Lake and once I got to meet this Orion I started getting some total Malfoy x Potter AU ship vibes if Malfoy was a girl haha.
“You okay – Gal, right?” he said to me, just to put some salt on the wound. We’d been in the same lab section for three years.
“No thanks to you and your boundless fascination for every dark thing creeping through the place,” I said icily. “And it is not Gal, it has never been Gal, it’s Galadriel” – the name wasn’t my idea, don’t look at me – “and if that’s too many syllables for you to manage all in one go, El will do.”
* * *
“You’re welcome,” I said. “Are you going to be all right getting to your next lesson?”
“Yeah?” he said, in even more doubtful tones.
“Do you need to be walked?” I asked, eyeing him.
“No, I don’t need – what are you doing?” he burst out.
“Why are you being this nice?” he said. “Are you mad at me for something?”
“No!” I said, and was about to inform him that I was a decent human being and nice quite regularly or at least once in a while…Pg. 4; Pg. 217
Orion is the school hero, always technically causing trouble and chaos though he’s instantly forgiven for it since the result is him saving hundreds of students from getting murdered by the school’s nasties, and when he’s caught saving El she becomes the first person to not only refuse to thank him but would rather bludgeon him for the unnecessary rescue. And thus it begins.
Honestly I am so into this. El’s voice apparently is right up my alley, snarky yet conversational and informative, because I fell right into the story and cannot wait for the sequel. It’s dark and full of horror and yet the back and forth between El and Orion is hilarious (truly, El comes up with some fantastic insults for him). But to this book’s credit, there is more to El than just her powers of destruction or this annoying shining knight who keeps stepping on her perfectly capable toes. Novik gives El friends, allies, enemies, etc. We get to meet Aadhya and Liu, as well as several others, who grow into their own full personas as El spends more time with them, giving them the time to actually form into real people to her. I really like this gradual blooming of characters because El is ostracized for three years and while no one even feigns a desire to get to know her, she returns the sentiment in kind besides keeping certain useful tabs on her classmates aware that without friends or an alliance it’s all down to her resourcefulness for survival.
Which didn’t make her a great choice for me to ally with, but I didn’t actually care…I wanted this thing between us, walking to lunch together after a morning working hard side by side, a small warm feeling that we were on the same team. I didn’t just want them to help me live. I wanted for them to live.
* * *
“Mum, I have friends. Aadhya and Liu and Orion. I have friends,” and in the dream my eyes were blurry and I was smiling, and I woke up still smiling.Pg. 198; Pg. 215
The book sort of just tosses you into the world without taking much time or dedication to explaining anything so you have to learn a lot of terminology, hierarchy, world-building, etc. on the fly (though El does explain some things in her own time) and that can be kind of confusing at times but I just went with it and clicked with the story enough to just trust I’d understand more as I read more. Also if Novik had tried to do a beginning-of-the-book-world-building info dump, I would have died. Okay not really but the chance of me bothering to push through it and finish the book at all would have dropped to damn slim. What helped me click with the story and be excited for any tidbit whether world, magic, or plot, was the cast of characters: primarily El, then Orion, then the others as El’s non-existent social circle begins to grow due to unforeseen circumstances that could either save or doom her. And that ending line!!!! WHERE IS THE SEQUEL???
It’s one thing to have the strong sense that I could cast any number of insanely powerful murder spells. It’s another to have proven it quite that dramatically…Pg. 140
This isn’t a very long book but a lot happens. Will I read the sequel? Unequivocally yes.
A Deadly Education kicks off one hell of a school term’s end full of monsters, maleficers, traitors, and nasties, but between the horror and angst there is friendship, honor, and a surprising amount of wit and laughter. Not a tale for the dimwitted or faint of heart, Novik has crafted what promises to be an epic fantasy series full of magic, mayhem, and a girl with the power to level kingdoms.
A note on the controversy surrounding this book: This book is not racist so please stop fanning that baseless fire. If you want other multicultural thoughts on this, Mary S.R. does it quite succinctly in her review as well as A Naga of the Nusantara‘s more lengthy post on the matter. Reminder that conversations change lives, witch hunts end them.
Meet Naomi Novik!
An avid reader of fantasy literature since age six, when she first made her way through The Lord of the Rings, Naomi Novik is also a history buff with a particular interest in the Napoleonic era and a fondness for the work of Patrick O’Brian and Jane Austen. She studied English literature at Brown University, and did graduate work in computer science at Columbia University before leaving to participate in the design and development of the computer game Neverwinter Nights: Shadow of Undrentide. Over the course of a brief winter sojourn spent working on the game in Edmonton, Canada (accompanied by a truly alarming coat that now lives brooding in the depths of her closet), she realized she preferred writing to programming, and on returning to New York, decided to try her hand at novels.
Naomi lives in New York City with her husband and six computers.