My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I started this book, I wasn't sure about it. It opens with a fifteen-page infodump, and while there's some fascinating worldbuilding revealed there--even more interesting once I got further into the book and realized how it fit in--I thought, "Whaaaaaa?" But I've read plenty of good Naomi Novik novels, more than enough for me to give her the benefit of the doubt.
My faith paid off. The more I read, the more this book reeled me in. This is a different style of writing than I've seen from Novik before, but it's perfect for this character and this world. The obvious takeaway to this book is that it's in conversation with J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, and that's certainly true. Novik takes the now-cliched setting of the "magic school" and turns it inside-out, making it complex and scary and grim and bloody. (I don't think it's overwhelmingly so, but this is nothing like Hogwarts.) If this was a Hollywood pitch, it could be summed up as, "the protagonist of this book is a dark, angry and immensely powerful Hermione." But there's also a callback to J.R.R. Tolkien, in that the protagonist is named Galadriel. Which may sound cheesy, but it too is about subverting the obvious--what if Tolkien's Galadriel was also a furious, bullied outcast, balancing on the edge of becoming a villain?
This book hits both of my sweet spots, worldbuilding and characterization, and does it with style. This means that there's not a lot of action (except at the end) and the plot is more measured and deliberate, but the first two elements more than make up for it, at least for me. The worldbuilding is complex: the Scholomance, a magic school parked in another dimension, is a dangerous place (the book is called A Deadly Education for a good reason), and the only place deadlier is outside of it, where otherworldy demons called malefica can and most likely will eat anyone who can store and manipulate magical energy. (The "good" magical energy being mana, and the "bad" being mal. This is the central conflict of Galadriel's character, that at five years old she was prophesied to become a monstrous "mal," and she knows she can do it--she single-handedly kills a horrific creature called a maw-mouth, and she shouldn't have been able to. She spends the entire book fighting her darker impulses, with no guarantee that she won't give in to them in the very next chapter. This keeps the tension high.) The Scholomance is a crappy place, a self-contained, semi-sentient magical construct where fledgling wizard children are basically trapped to keep them sort of safe (but not very, as there are big and little malefica constantly creeping in, and every day, even just going down to the cafeteria to grab lunch, you have to be on constant watch for all sorts of things that can cut, poison, stab, eviscerate, drain, and kill you in a hundred different ways). To keep themselves alive, the students are making and breaking alliances, and translating, creating, casting and swapping spells.
This is a pretty grim world, and so there has to be something to balance it out. This is found in the characters. Galadriel, or "El," is angry, snarky, caustic, and rude, but damned if she doesn't have the sort of wry sarcastic humor that startled a few laughs out of me. Her growing friendship with Aadhya, and later other classmates, is a highlight of the book. These friendships are relationships that happen almost in spite of themselves, as Galadriel slowly and grudgingly begins to change and open up. And then, of course, there is Orion Lake. He is the Harry Potter/Gandalf analogue of this world, a powerful white-knight sort who lives to eliminate the mals and spends all of his time throwing combat spells in every direction, killing all sorts of critters and rescuing everyone around him, including Galadriel, multiple times. Naturally, this leads everyone to regard him as their own personal shield to use, cajole and manipulate, never looking at him as an actual person. Which is why he ends up being attracted to our rude, cranky heroine, who yells at him and insults him and treats him no differently than all the other people she shouts at.
(She doesn't do this all the way through. That would not only get tiresome, it would quickly become abuse. It's a sign of her growth that she calms down and begins to treat Orion more fairly. It's also a sign of the thought the author has put into her story, knowing she would have to have realistic characters--or as realistic as possible, given the circumstances--to balance out the complexity of the worldbuilding.)
This book took a while to grab me, but by the end I was thoroughly hooked. (So much so I've already pre-ordered the sequel.) The final sentence of the book, given everything that has gone before, is the sort of holy shit ending that makes me want to give the author forty lashes with a wet noodle--how dare you leave us dangling like this? But Naomi Novik knows what she's doing, and you should give this book a shot.
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