I’m writing this while still plagued by the tiredness and general fatigue of being sick*, so bear with me as best ye can. But, I’ve just finished Novik’s first book of the her Scholomance series, A Deadly Education, and—wow.
To start off with, I’ve been a fan of Novik’s for years. The first book of hers I ever read was His Majesty’s Dragon, the first in her Temeraire series published way back when in the yester-year of 2006. I stuck with the Temeraire series up until the fourth book—Empire of Ivory—for reasons unknown to me. (Likely that I was young, easily distracted, and had found a new series to latch on to. Something like that, maybe?)
I was thrilled to see that she was still publishing, and a friend of mine pinged me to say that she’d seen news that Novik was publishing a new book, Spinning Silver. I never ended up reading it, though was overjoyed at the news that my favourite historical dragon writer was still in action. And sure enough, she came through again, this time with A Deadly Education.
It had popped up in my peripheral at a handful of bookstores. I’m often found lurking in the science fiction/fantasy sections as it is, and with Novik’s name being familiar, my eyes were often dragged to the little collection of Temeraire books on the shelf and thus I often spied Spinning Silver and A Deadly Education amongst the ranks.
For ages, though, I didn’t pick it up, except on one particular trip to Harry Hartog, feeling stressed and pressured to buy a book, I snatched up the first book in the Scholomance series. Still, it sat on my TBR pile for a wonderful few months before I decided I wanted to be that girl again and keep a book in my tote bag for when I’m riding public transport and need something to occupy myself.
Reader, from the first line I was hooked.
A Deadly Education—★★★★☆
“I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life.”A Deadly Education, Naomi Novik
Oh, yes. A snarky narrator in a strange and indescribable school of magic? I couldn’t have asked for better if I even knew what I was asking for in the first place.
The snark stays throughout, which I enjoyed very much. El—short for, hilariously and unfortunately, Galadriel—is our narrator and guide through the Scholomance and she has opinions. Thoughts and opinions.
There have been calls for more opinionated narrators, stories told with more bias and from a subjective point of view, and that is exactly what you’re getting with El. She is sour, dour, and snarky to boot and for once, I was thrilled to have a character that cared not one bit about what others thought of her. Except, she does care. And it’s written and shown in such a wonderful, human way. As much as El is bitey and sarcastic and trying to prove that she doesn’t need anyone, she also has her moments of fear and frustration and has a wonderful, purposeful arc of growth.
I’ve frequently been caught saying that I’m not much a fan of YA only to then find myself with a YA book in my hands. (This happened most recently with Garth Nix’s The Left-Handed Booksellers of London). I wasn’t fully aware of ADE being a YA book; it had sat with the other sci-fi and fantasy books in the shop on the opposite wall from the YA section. But, again, the clue of it being a school of wizardry and magic should have been a giveaway. So sue me!
Speaking of the school—the Scholomance itself—oh my god.
A prime example of not letting your readers question your world building, I’m throwing this book at the head of anyone who asks. There is never a moment where you’re left to question the mechanics and function of the Scholomance. It is deeply unknowable, and that works in Novik’s favour. That’s not saying there isn’t any ability to question how it works; you could sit down for hours and wonder at the fine-point details, but likely you won’t get anywhere. But Novik trusts in the creation and existence of the Scholomance, her characters trust it, and that’s what makes it work so well.
There’s just enough detail to get you through, to get you to nod along, to get you to really believe what is happening. That’s crucial when writing speculative fiction, which is predicated on the suspension of disbelief.
Out of all the characters therein, the Scholomance is my favourite. It is sentient, in some way that we don’t really understand, and it has an attitude. Students, young wizards, are taught by the school itself. From the back-cover blurb: “There are no teachers, no holidays, friendships are purely strategic, and the odds of survival are never equal. Once you’re inside, there are only two ways out: you graduate or you die.”
This is no happy-go-lucky Hogwarts with charming professors and cheery ghosts. This is a school that, by most description, is trying to kill its students more than it is trying to protect them which is to say, only a little bit. The school makes decisions for you on what courses you’ll take, whether you’re in honours, and which room you’ll live in. If you look too long at a book in Arabic, it’ll start to show you spells only in Arabic, even if you don’t know the language, until you learn it, at which point, you might have failed your other subjects because you were trying to learn Arabic.
This school is rough, ruthless, and exists both inside and outside the realms of what is real and what is magical. It is my favourite part of the whole book and without a doubt my favourite character.
A Deadly Education is fun, dynamic, strange, and wonderfully diverse. I really did enjoy reading it, and will likely, at some point, pick up the second book, The Last Graduate.
If nothing else, reading this book has encouraged me to go back and re-read the Temeraire series. If you’ve not read it—I really think you should. The Napoleonic wars but also there’s dragons? C’mon. Yes please, thank you, I’ll take nine**. What can I say, I’m a sucker for dragons.
So go forth and read, friends! Enjoy your fantasy murder-wizard schools and your reality-warping draconic wars in all quantities and flavours.
*Yes, dear readers, it is in fact Covid. Despite my best efforts and attempts to stay safe and healthy, something’s slipped past and I’ve gotten sick. I’m doing alright! Just staying isolated and reading as much as I can when I’m not thoroughly exhausted. Which is to say, I’ve done a little bit of reading here and there.
**I say this because there are nine books in the Temeraire series.