Dangerous School Days: A Review of A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik

There are few staples in fantasy fiction more widespread than magic school.  From ancient folklore to modern day novels, the idea of school where people can go to learn magic possesses a timeless appeal.  A place of the absolute highest learning, magic schools were once thought to be places where only the most wizened of philosophers could learn.  Modern fiction, however, draws more from boarding and high school culture.  It is a way to immediately connect a story to a younger audience which is likely currently in school, or recently graduated.  The magic school has become an incredibly mainstream and widespread concept as well, appearing in all Dungeons and Dragons settings, as well as featuring in novel series such as The Kingkiller Chronicles.  But the settings appeal extends beyond Western fiction, with many anime and manga, such as Negima! and Little Witch Academia, taking place in magic schools as well.  However, few schools of the arcane arts are more legendary than the Scholomance.

A Deadly Education is the most recent novel by Naomi Novik, and the first lesson in her new series, The Scholomance.  Her first series, Temeraire, featured a mixture of fantasy and alternate history, imaging what would have happened in the Napoleonic wars if an air force made up of dragons was involved.  While the series lasted nine novels, it was Novik’s two recent standalone novels which made her a name to watch for in fantasy fiction.  Uprooted, published in 2015, and Spinning Silver, published in 2018 and reviewed on this blog, cemented Novik’s reputation as an author who expertly crafted her own fairy tales.  Drawing from all over late medieval Europe and Russia, Novik plucks out the most interesting parts of famous fairy tales and folklore, such as Rumpelstiltskin and Baba Yaga, and spins it into something completely new.  Each novel, including A Deadly Education, is also told from the first-person point-of-view from the central heroine, something which the old fairy tales lack, creating something new.

Breaking with tradition, A Deadly Education takes place in the modern day.  Or, rather, what is assumed to be the modern day based on references made by the characters.  For the entirety of the novel, our character is trapped in the Scholomance, a school for magic existing in a pocket dimension just next to our own.  As told by Galadriel, our newest heroine, the school is arranged as such to separate young mages form the endless hordes of evil monsters hungry for their magic.  In essence, it the magical equivalent of high school, even possessing the same terminology for the classes—freshman through senior.  However, this school is entirely without adult supervision, running on what appears to be a magically automated system.  The administrators, if there are any, never step foot in the school, leaving the students to fend for themselves.  As such, the many magical protections to keep the monsters out are breaking down, creating a climate of constant strife as the students not only compete for grade placement, but for their lives.

Appropriately to such a setting, the Scholomance of folklore is not a safe place.   Thought to be located in Transylvania, the Scholomance of lore was thought to be a school run by the devil.  With only ten students admitted at a time, they learned magic spells and the speech of animals, with one graduate being chosen as the Weathermaker and tasked with riding a dragon through the sky to control the weather.  The influence of the Scholomance on fiction cannot be overstated, aside from Novik’s new series.  It can be found mentioned twice in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and is even featured as a dungeon in World of Warcraft.  The Scholomance is not, and has never been, a safe place for its students.

With a magic school as the central setting, Novik has also delved into how magic works and come up with her own system for the characters.  All magic in The Scholomance series is derived from one of two sources of power: mana and malia.  Mana should be recognizable to anyone who has ever played a video game with magic.  In A Deadly Education, it operates as a fuel for magic, generated by a person putting effort into a task.  The more effort, the greater the mana.  It could be anything from doing pushups to singing a song.  More than once during the novel, Galadriel makes it clear that she only uses mana, even though it is more difficult to use magic on mana alone when you are alone, as she is.  Conversely, there is also malia.  Malia is power drawn from life and sacrifice.  It could be taken from anything as small as a hair or as large as killing a person.  The use of malia is a signature of maleficers, or dark magic users.  While not outright outlawed, maleficers are tolerated as long as they do not kill anyone.  Using malia to fuel spells is made out to be easier, but addictive and inevitably leading to darkness.  Novik also goes to great pains to show why people would turn to such a practice.

Finally, we arrive at the main character and narrator of A Deadly Education.  Galadriel Higgins, or El, is the daughter of an exceptionally powerful magic user known for her healing.  Described as a true hippie and even naming her daughter after a character from The Lord of the Rings, Galadriel certainly did not take after her mother.  Galadriel is pragmatic and practical in all things, having grown up facing more hardships than any child should have.  Living outside one of the major magical enclaves—essentially a self-contained magical society to protect against the numerous monsters that target magic users—Galadriel’s upbringing was defined by constant, daily attacks, from monsters big and small.  On top of that, her father’s side of the family in India rejected her after the family matriarch witnessed a vision of Galadriel causing widespread death and destruction, resulting in her and her mother remaining in Wales.  Every magic user in Novik’s new setting has an affinity, from artifice to evocation.  Galadriel’s affinity lends itself towards widespread destruction, making it very easy should she ever wish to take over the world.  Yet, that is the last thing on her mind.  All she wants is to survive the Scholomance and be accepted by the people around her, despite her understandably prickly demeanor. 

Galadriel is joined by a cast of supporting and side characters beyond the normal high school cliques and tropes.  As the singular school for magic, Novik also makes it clear how international the school really is, taking the time to allow readers to meet students from all over the world.  Many fantasy novels do have an issue of race, in that the cast is nearly entirely white.  I cannot claim to know Novik’s thought process, but it feels like she went into A Deadly Education with the intention of not allowing the same issue to be present in her book.  Just having a woman of color as the main character and narrator is something many fantasy authors, even the biggest names in the genre, would never dream of.  And, while her previous two novels featured central romances, Galadriel simply does not have time for that.  While a secondary character, Orion Lake, is set up as a love interest, Galadriel mostly sees him as an antagonist or a nuisance.  Instead, the most important relationship to the story is between her and her two friends, Liu and Aadhya.  Starting as just two characters who tolerate Galadriel and trade with her, their relationship develops into a real friendship and trust, culminating in a genuine pact.  This the relationship readers root for throughout the novel.

A Deadly Education is a great first entry into what will hopefully will be a long-lasting series.  The follow-up novel, titled The Last Graduate, is schedule for publication in July 2021, and you can be sure I will be reading it not long after.  A Deadly Education is the kind of book that wants you to immediately pick up the next, even if that next book is not actually out yet.  Galadriel is a character worth rooting for, and you cannot help but want to see her and her friends succeed.  Having completed their junior year at the Scholomance, things in the school are certain to only become more dangerous

A Deadly Education can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 7 days

Next on the List: Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, by Max Brooks

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