Magic, monsters, and dark academia. Did I need further reasons to read this book? NOPE.
Who, What, Where?
In A Deadly Education, our lead is Galadriel ‘El’ Higgins, a teenage witch with a talent for destructive magic. El is currently in her penultimate year at Scholomance, an international school for young mages with a frightening survival rate. Dropping out isn’t an option so students have little choice but to push through their coursework whilst trying to avoid getting eaten by one of the many monsters lurking throughout the school’s corridors and crevices. And even then, they still have to make it through graduation.
A Prickly Heroine & Bland Hero
El is far from your traditionally likeable heroine. She’s snarky, rude, foul tempered, frequently annoying and has a doom-filled prophecy about her to boot. This, among other things, made the early parts of the book a struggle for me to get through, particularly as it’s told in first person. However, as the book went on, I got to learn more about El’s history and came to understand why she’s so bitter and angry at the world and acts the way she does. After a while, I found that she’d grown on me, like a stubborn mould, and I was genuinely happy to see her build up some genuine connections by the end of the novel with people who saw past her prickly exterior.
Aside from El, the other major character is Orion Blake, golden boy and protector of students everywhere. While I didn’t dislike Orion, I did find him somewhat bland and it massively frustrated me that there was no explanation for his apparent “specialness”. This aside, I did really like his and El’s bizarre friendship. It’s mainly El telling Orion what an idiot he’s being and him simultaneously being frustrated by it and liking it because nobody else treats him like a normal human being. I can get behind that.
The Supporting Cast
There are quite a few side characters in this book. Although they’re ethnically and linguistically diverse, for the first half I found them to be vague and flat. Much like with El though, a few of the more prominent ones did improve as the story progressed, namely Liu, Chloe and Aadhya, who each developed their own traits and minor side plots. By the end I had a much greater appreciation for these three and really enjoyed seeing their relationships with El evolve.
Tell, Not Show
Good news: the world is good. Bad News: We get told about it in ridiculous amounts of info dumping. And we’re not talking easy to follow stuff, we’re talking complicated world building necessary for understanding much of the events and dynamics between characters – magic sources, specialisations, languages and their relationship to magic, the structure of magical society, etc. It’s especially prominent in the first couple of chapters. After the opening hook I kept waiting around for an actual scene or conversation to take place for a good while.
Info dumping aside, I just don’t think I’m much of a fan of Novik’s writing style. This is something I noticed while reading Uprooted a few years back. It’s dense and wordy (unnecessarily so), there’s a large amount of inner monologuing, and a tendency to spend time on things that aren’t important to the story or the reader’s enjoyment, e.g. the history of a spell El uses at a high intensity moment. While I was interested in the general gist of the book, I found myself bored and skimming chunks of it from time to time.
Wanted: More Plot
Another thing I see people having problems with is the plot. Or the lack of one until about 70% of the way through. Most of A Deadly Education feels like a collection of small subplots happening as El goes through her day-to-day school life. These include El figuring out what to do after graduation, her relationship with Orion, the resulting antagonism with the New York kids, Liu’s struggles with malia (dark magic), etc. For the most part though, it’s just El and the other students trying to avoid being killed by a variety of determined and crafty creatures which Orion regularly saves them from. Once a larger plot become apparent it did provide some context to a few of the earlier events and I quite enjoyed where the story ended up climax and ending wise.
Over the last few months there’s been discussion online about certain elements of this book being racially offensive (e.g. a problematic passage about locs). As a white, Australian reviewer, I don’t feel I’m the right person to comment on these, especially as others who are better qualified than myself have already done so at length. You can find three different posts here, here and here. I should also mention that Naomi Novik has apologised for some of these inclusions and vowed to do better in future.
A Deadly Education gets some things right and others, not so much. If you’re already a dedicated Novik fan, you’ll probably enjoy this latest offering. Despite the book not living up to its full potential in my eyes, with how things ended I’ll probably give the sequel a go when it releases in 2021.