Some books are objectively well written – neatly structured, with clever turns of phrase – but fail to tell enjoyable stories. Others are objectively poor – full of info-dumping, lacking a coherent plot, without a single likeable character, or all three – yet despite this, are so brilliant to read it doesn’t matter. ‘A Deadly Education’ is the latter. It’s a mess of a book, told in a first-person stream of consciousness style that goes on page-long tangents about entirely irrelevant points then abruptly jumping back to the original point that you’d forgotten was being made, but it’s such a fun book that it doesn’t matter. I regularly found myself laughing out loud reading it. This has been talked about as a fantasy dark academia, but the vibes I was getting from it were more Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth. Gideon and Novik’s protagonist, El, would outwardly hate each other but secretly get along like a house on fire, setting not just the house but the entire village on fire in the process.
‘A Deadly Education’ follows El, short for Galadriel, a sophomore student at the Scholomance – a school for those born with magic. However, it’s not like any other school. There are no teachers – in fact, there are no staff members at all. There are lessons, but the content is unpredictable and may or may not be helpful. There’s only one rule – survive – deceptively difficult when monsters stroll the halls. Thousands of students enter, but only a few hundred will leave.
“They don’t have any reason to care about us. We’re not their children. We’re the other gazelles, all of us trying to outrun the same pack of lions. And if we happen to be faster than their children, more powerful, their children will get eaten… You can’t blame people for wanting their own kids to live.”
El is a loner – her mother is a hippy at a commune in Wales, not a member of an Enclave which might have brought her daughter allies. In a school where alliances with other students are key to survival, this should have been a death sentence – except that El possesses dark magic strong enough to level mountains. Too bad that using that magic would kill everyone else in the school – and that no-one believes she has it. When her life is saved by the school’s resident hero – Orion, the son of the head of the New York Enclave, one of the most powerful witches in the world – El’s initial reaction is anger. How dare he think her incapable of protecting herself? When Orion continues to stick around like an old piece of chewing gum stuck to her shoe, the entire balance of power keeping the school in check shifts – with potentially devastating consequences.
El is the single best part of this book. She’s a perpetually angry, grumpy mess, but has a heart of gold – fortunate in someone with enough power to kill all those around her. Everything she says and thinks is completely deadpan but regularly hilarious – her interactions with Orion are frequently comedy gold. She’s also incredibly smart and insightful in the way she sees the world. At first, it’s easy to feel annoyed at her for her constant anger at others, but as the book unfolds it becomes easier to see why she acts in the way she does. Her character development is excellent – when she finally starts to let others in it’s one of the best moments of the book.
“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? That’s what it feels like, when you show up.”
Orion is absolutely adorable. The saviour of the school, Orion has an entire Enclave’s worth of power at his back and a unique ability to kill Mals (monsters) and steal their power. His efforts mean there are more surviving students at the Scholomance than ever before -but they’ve also made the magic of the school very angry, and the Mals very hungry. Orion has always been hero-worshipped for his ability, so he has no idea what to do when El acts like her charming self with him. At first, his presence is hard to understand and he seems like a two-dimensional hero, but once again Novik brilliantly adds depth to his character as the story unfolds, painting a picture of a boy who just wants to be liked for who he is, rather than what he can do. Orion is also, for a conquering hero, the single naivest character in the world, and El’s continuing exasperation at his obliviousness is comedy gold.
The supporting characters are equally excellent. There’s Liu, who resorts to sacrificing animals to obtain power; Chloe, the spoilt rich girl from the New York Enclave who El can’t stand; Aadhya, the pragmatic trader and one of the few in the school to tolerate El’s presence; Magnus, the entitled prat who wants El dead for the crime of daring to talk to Orion. Even these characters grow and develop throughout the book, with Novik managing to flip opinions of them as events unfold. She has a true gift for writing exceptional characters.
In many ways, the plot is simple – it has to be, to fit in around the winding tangents and info-dumps – but this matters less because of the intriguing setting and characters. It’s still tense, clever, and the ending is such an exceptional cliffhanger I’m both in awe and angry. Novik manages the rare skill of both making this stand alone as a full book and leaving a cliffhanger so good you need the next book immediately. She’d better not give us years to wait or I’ll be tearing my hair out at the suspense.
Overall, this is an info-dumpy mess that somehow still manages to be an exceptional book. Novik has dared to write a book that many people will hate but others will love for the sheer brilliance of the setting and characters. Recommended for those who like character-driven fantasy, intriguing settings, and grizzly, unlikeable characters who you end up loving anyway.
Published by Cornerstone Books
Hardback: 29th September 2020