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Book Description:

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the author of Uprooted and Spinning Silver comes the story of an unwilling dark sorceress who is destined to rewrite the rules of magic.

“The dark school of magic I’ve been waiting for.” Katherine Arden, author of Winternight Trilogy

I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he saved my life.

Everyone loves Orion Lake. Everyone else, that is. Far as I’m concerned, he can keep his flashy combat magic to himself. I’m not joining his pack of adoring fans.

I don’t need help surviving the Scholomance, even if they do. Forget the hordes of monsters and cursed artifacts, I’m probably the most dangerous thing in the place. Just give me a chance and I’ll level mountains and kill untold millions, make myself the dark queen of the world.

At least, that’s what the world expects. Most of the other students in here would be delighted if Orion killed me like one more evil thing that’s crawled out of the drains. Sometimes I think they want me to turn into the evil witch they assume I am. The school certainly does.

But the Scholomance isn’t getting what it wants from me. And neither is Orion Lake. I may not be anyone’s idea of the shining hero, but I’m going to make it out of this place alive, and I’m not going to slaughter thousands to do it, either.

Although I’m giving serious consideration to just one.

With flawless mastery, Naomi Novik creates a school bursting with magic like you’ve never seen before, and a heroine for the ages—a character so sharply realized and so richly nuanced that she will live on in hearts and minds for generations to come.

Given my love for Uprooted and enjoyment of magic school settings, I had been quite looking forward to the first book in Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy, A Deadly Education. I was even more excited to pick it up after seeing this paragraph about its inspiration on the author’s website:

One of the oldest legends of a school for witchcraft and wizardry is the story of the Scholomance, a hidden institution said to be run by the Devil himself, where the students are cloistered for years, never seeing the sun while learning the darkest of arts. Ever since I first read about this mysterious place in my middle-school library, I’ve been imagining its story. Who are the students in its classrooms and why would they or their parents accept the price the school exacts?

However, I did not find the Scholomance imagined in A Deadly Education particularly compelling, and even though I did like the overall story and the dynamic between the two main characters, these were not strong enough to make up for the amount of dull exposition between the good parts.

The basic premise is that there are a few people in the world who possess magic, and monsters that are drawn to magic are especially drawn to teenagers that possess it. It’s supposed to be safest for these young people to spend their teenage years cloistered in this school without any teachers, which still has monster attacks galore but also has plenty of books and customized assignments allowing students to hone their particular gifts.

For El (short for Galadriel), that gift is an affinity for destructive magic, and as much as she tries to resist it after her great-grandmother prophesied of the horrors she would one day cause, the school keeps trying to push her in that direction. For instance, when she requests a spell for cleaning up the foul monster goo that is all over her room (thanks to Orion Lake’s penchant for monster killing), she receives one spell that would set everything on fire and another that would allow her to enslave people to do as she commands. (After several tries, she does get the type of spell she was hoping for, but it’s in one of the languages she finds most difficult.)

Although I didn’t find the worldbuilding convincing (especially that a bunch of powerful magic-users couldn’t have come up with a better solution than a still-very-dangerous school, at least given what has been revealed so far), I did appreciate that it explored who exactly has the connections and resources to benefit from such a system. I also like where I suspect the prophecy about El is headed, and once I got to know and understand her, I came to like El herself. At first, she was rude and grating, but as she started to form some friendships, her better qualities came to the forefront: her loyalty, her desire for justice, her disdain for others being treated as a means to someone else’s advancement without regard for them as people, her refusal to take the easier path when it clashes with her values.

It’s these best parts of herself that cause Orion to continue to seek her out even after he realizes she’s not actually an evil he needs to keep an eye on. Many of the people surrounding the school’s famed monster hunter see him as someone who can improve their chances of surviving to graduate without caring one whit about him, and sharp-tongued as El is, she is also the only one who treats him like a person instead of a hero. And El finds herself inexplicably fond of Orion in spite of herself, after she realizes he’s genuinely decent and not destroying monsters for glory.

The development of their relationship is fun, as is discovering just how powerful El is—and just how much destruction she could unleash—but these aspects are overshadowed by the many infodumps. El’s first-person perspective is filled with rambling, lengthy explanations of just about anything that comes up: the school and its history, the workings of magic, the various monsters and how to kill them, her past, what she knows about the other students from their families to their magical enclaves, and so forth. A Deadly Education seemed to contain more exposition than actual story, and neither the information conveyed nor the voice were engaging enough to carry it for me. Although I thought it mostly succeeded at making El’s narrative fit her character, I can’t say I enjoyed the long-winded style and the attempts at dark-but-casual-humor largely failed to amuse me. I almost put this book down on several occasions and it wasn’t until the last third or so that it seemed to be going anywhere—but it still didn’t go far enough that I felt like drudging through page after page of dull narration paid off.

Despite that, I actually am a little curious about the next book since I did grow to like El as well as the relationships she was building. I’m not so sure I’ll actually read The Last Graduate once it comes out given that I didn’t feel that the positives outweighed the amount of negatives, but I may give it a try if I hear that it has less explanation and more focus on moving the main protagonist’s story forward.

My Rating: 4/10

Where I got my reading copy: Electronic copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from A Deadly Education