Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 29 September 2020)
Series: The Scholomance – Lesson One
Length: 323 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
One of the most popular authors of fantasy fiction, Naomi Novik, returns with another awesome and fun read, A Deadly Education, an entertaining alternative to the classic magical school novels.
Naomi Novik is a talented author was has been writing some intriguing and fun fantasy novels since 2006, when she released the first novel in her Temeraire series, His Majesty’s Dragon (also released as Temeraire), an intriguing fantasy based alternate history series that presents a re-imagined account of the Napoleonic War fought with dragons. I have been meaning to check out the Temeraire books for a while now, but so far the only one of Novik’s novels that I have had the chance to read was the 2018 release, Spinning Silver. Spinning Silver was a clever book that contained an interesting and compelling new take on the classic fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin. I quite enjoyed Spinning Silver and I have been keeping an eye out for anything new from Novik for a while. When I heard that Novik had new book coming out this year, I was quite excited, especially when I saw the cool concept that Novik was using as a basis for her story.
A Deadly Education, which forms the first book in Novik’s planned Scholomance series, is set in the Scholomance, the world’s premiere magic school. But this is not your typical magical school! Instead, the Scholomance is one of the most dangerous and deadly places on the planet. There are no teachers, all the classes have a dark twist to them, and the halls are packed full of monsters, known as maleficaria, or mals, who are determined to eat each and every one of the students before they can escape. Students must survive in there for years, learning what magic they can from the school’s unique learning devices and forming what alliances they can before they graduate, a gruelling process which sees the graduating class run through a gauntlet of the most dangerous mals in existence. Few students survive their time in the Scholomance, especially if they do not have any friends, which is going to be a real problem for Galadriel “El” Higgens.
El is the school outcast. Considered weird and naturally unfriendly, she seems a likely candidate to die when her year finally graduates. However, El is hiding a massive secret: she has an unnatural affinity for extremely destructive spells and has the magical potential to level the school and everything in it, students and monsters included. Desperate to keep control of her abilities and not succumb to her dark temptations to drain the student body of their magic and lay waste to everything she encounters, El seeks to find people who she can rely on. And then Orion Lake bursts into her life, literally.
Orion is the school darling. The scion of a powerful family whose magic allows him to destroy and absorb the powers of any maleficaria he encounters, Orion is worshiped in the school, especially as he has made it his mission to save as many students as possible. But his attempted heroics have thrown a spanner in El’s carefully laid plans to survive graduation. Now forced to accept Orion’s constant protection and company, El forms a new plan to gain allies, and even starts to make a few precious friends. However, something even more sinister is afoot in the Scholomance. More mals than usual are invading the school, and some surprisingly powerful creatures are finding a way in for the first time. As Orion jumps blindly into danger, El attempts to help, determined to protect her best chance of survival. But can she save herself and Orion with killing the rest of the students, or will a dark prophecy about her future finally come true?
A Deadly Education is an exceptional and outstanding novel from Novik that provides the reader with an exciting and deeply enjoyable fantasy story set within a unique and captivating magical school. This proved to be an extremely fast-paced narrative that quickly sets the scene for the entire story and then sets the protagonist on a dangerous course as she tries to navigate a series of new trials and hazards within an already dangerous location. Novik spins quite an impressive tale within this book, and I found myself hooked from the very beginning. I loved the combination of magical learning (I’m a sucker for a good magical school story), dangerous action, the intrigue of the students’ intense jockeying for position and alliances, as well as the character growth that occurred throughout the course of the book. All of these excellent story elements came together into one exceptional narrative that readers will quickly find themselves addicted to. If I had one complaint about the story it would be that the ending was a little weak, with the big finale that was being built up for most of the story being resolved rather quickly, although I did like the build-up and its underlying causes. Still, I did really enjoy where the story went, and all the details and story aspects in this book set the rest of the series up well. Overall, I had an amazing time reading this book, and I actually managed to power through it in around a day, due to how much I liked it. This was a truly impressive novel from Novik and I am extremely glad that I got the chance to read it.
This novel features an interesting range of different characters. The book primarily revolves around the point-of-view character, El, and male lead, Orion Lake. I personally really enjoyed the main protagonist, El (short for Galadriel, a fun and apt reference to The Lord of the Rings), the snarky, short-tempered and bitter character from through eyes we see the entire story unfold. El proves to be an excellent narrator for A Deadly Education, and I liked her sarcastic and pessimistic view on the events occurring and the people she encounters, which results in most of the book’s fun humour. El also has a lot of emotional and personal baggage weighing her down, which is very intriguing to unravel, especially as it stops her from getting close to people and gives her a vast independent streak in a location where individuals are killed off rather easily. The most significant of these are her vast destructive powers and her ability to suck the magic and life from all those around her. El is essentially a nuclear bomb who has the potential to destroy the entire school and spends the vast majority of the book trying to hide this fact from people. This requires a careful balancing act from El as she attempts more mundane ways at building up her mana (exercise, knitting and so forth), while also battling the school’s attempts to cater to her affinity by providing her with destructive spells and school projects with evil potential, rather than the simpler tasks she desires. I really appreciated this part of El’s character, and I found it fascinating to see her efforts to manage her power, especially in deadly situations. In addition, El also has some major trust and social issues due to her childhood, as not only was El’s father killed in the school by one of the monsters but his family and the other major magical enclaves turned their back on her and her mother, due to El’s destructive potential. This makes her hostile towards the various members of the elitist enclaves in the Scholomance, which finds her quite isolated throughout the book. El also has a rather dark vibe to her that makes the people she encounters quite uncomfortable, and as a result she has trouble making friends. Novik does an amazing job exploring this character throughout the novel, and El experiences some substantial development as a result. It was great to see her grow as a person, especially as you come to really like the character, and I enjoyed seeing her finally make some much need connections and friendships.
The other major character in the novel was Orion Lake. Orion is a powerful magical user who excels at killing mals and absorbing their energy. At the start of the book, Orion is shown to be a typical noble hero fantasy character who is beloved by the school and appears to have a substantial following of friends and supporters. However, Orion finds himself drawn to El, mainly due to the fact that El berates him and actually calls him out on his actions. This results in an intriguing character dissection on Orion, as El discovers that Orion feels trapped in his role as a hero and he dislikes all the attention being levelled at him, as everyone treats him as a heroic being rather than a normal person. I found Orion a bit flat at times, but he proved to be an entertaining addition to the narrative, and I enjoyed seeing his interactions with El, mostly because El levels all manner of hostilities towards him and he just shrugs it off, much to her frustration.
Easily the best part of A Deadly Education is the unique and impressive setting that Novik has spun together for her narrative. Ever since my earliest days of fantasy fandom I have really enjoyed the magical school setting, and I still like seeing them in my fantasy novels, especially when they have the fun twists that the Scholomance does. Novik did an incredible job coming up with this dark fantasy school, and I love the exceptionally creative and dangerous location that eventuated. Every single detail of this magical school was really cool, from the teacherless classes, the somewhat sinister learning techniques which challenge the students in unique ways, the dangers that haunt the student body, the distinctive monsters that stalk the halls, and the overall layout and history of the facility. All of this helps to create an excellent and memorable setting for the story, and I loved seeing this darker take on a typical fantasy school such as Hogwarts. I especially liked all the imaginative ways in which the students are forced to navigate and survive the various trials and dangers they encounter as they attempt to survive and prepare for the deadly graduation that is about to occur. I felt that Novik did an exceptional job introducing the myriad unique details of her new fantasy world to the reader, and at no point did I feel lost or confused about the elements that were key to the narrative. I had an incredible time getting lost in this new fantasy universe and I cannot wait to see what secrets and new elements get developed in the future entries in the series.
It is very important to note that A Deadly Education is one of those books that will appeal to an extremely wide range of readers. Due to its content and its focus on teenage characters, A Deadly Education has a lot of elements that mark it as a young adult novel, and many younger readers will have a great time reading it. I personally think that this will be an awesome novel for teenage fantasy fans, and it is a book I think I would have really enjoyed as a younger reader. However, A Deadly Education is not explicitly being marketed as a young adult fiction novel, and there is a lot in this book for older readers to enjoy. Fantasy fans of all ages will no doubt really appreciate the fun take on the magical school storyline and many readers, especially those who grew up on the Harry Potter novels, will have a blast seeing this more deadly and brutal British magical academy.
A Deadly Education is an exciting and impressive novel from Naomi Novik that proved to be quite an outstanding read. This excellent fantasy book is incredibly easy to enjoy and contains a clever and amazing take on the classic magical school storyline. A highly recommended read; you are going to fall in love with this awesome book.