Book Review : A Deadly Education

Book Review : A Deadly EducationA Deadly Education (The Scholomance, #1) by Naomi Novik
Published by Del Rey on September 29th 2020
Genres: Fantasy, Fantasy & Magic
Pages: 336
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From the New York Times bestselling author of Uprooted and Spinning Silver comes the story of an unwilling dark sorceress who is destined to rewrite the rules of magic.
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 me to do. 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 itself 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 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.

I have not read another novel by Naomi Novik, since Uprooted, but when I read the synopsis for A Deadly Education, I knew I had to read this novel and preordered it. A Deadly Education is packed with so much greatness. I loved the heroine, Galadriel “El” Higgins, from the very first page. I also was enraptured by El’s humorous narration, the world building, the magic system, the social dynamics, and literally every part of this novel. 


“Your affinity—”

“Just think about the ‘love me and despair’ version,” I said. 

“What?” Liu said. 

 ”All shall love me and despair,’” I said. She was eyeing me very dubiously. “Galadriel? In Lord of the Rings?”


How could I not love a character named after Galadriel from Lord of the Rings? I cannot say enough about how much I love main character and narrator El. I was a little worried when I discovered A Deadly Education was written in first person—I generally prefer third person. But I quickly grew to love El and her perspective only made me feel closer to her. El is so many things rolled into one—angry, talented, bitter, honest, lonely, determined, rude, and most relatable, an outsider who just wants to belong somewhere without compromising her morals. Everything is harder for El, because her magical affinity is for destructive magic. The poor girl has to work extra hard to make sure the simplest or most innocuous of her spells don’t turn into genocide or worse. So her conundrum is this: she’s an incredibly powerful wizard, but none of her classmates know it, as she’s too busy trying not to kill anyone. 


“It’s all my mum’s fault, of course, just like my stupid name. She’s one of those flowers and beads and crystals sorts, dancing to the Goddess under the moon. Everyone’s a lovely person and anyone who does anything wrong is misunderstood or unhappy. Naturally I came out designed to be the exact opposite of this paragon, as anyone with a basic understanding of the balancing principle might have expected, and when I want to straighten my room, I get instructions on how to kill it with fire.”


So hilarity ensues when El falls in with the Scholomance’s golden boy, Orion Lake, who spends most of his time saving his classmates from the murderous maleficarias that roam the halls of the magic school. El is the first person to be absolutely horrified and less than thankful that Orion saves her, repeatedly, wanting to prove herself as the capable wizard she is and to save herself. Like El, I quickly came to enjoy Orion Lake’s character. I love author Naomi Novik’s portrayal of a him—an awkward, bumbling hero, who doesn’t think ahead, isn’t quite handsome but isn’t ugly either. In fact, Orion really isn’t all that capable, besides his magical affinity for destroying maleficarias. Novik really excels at pushing the envelope on both character types and social dynamics. 


And the social dynamics in a school that is designed to keep young wizards from getting destroyed by maleficarias, but also attracts these same evil magical creatures due to the sheer number of the students, are really interesting. In A Deadly Education the school is crawling with these “mals,” and students are constantly under attack and just trying to survive graduation, where they will be met with hoards of these hungry creatures. To have any chance at making it out alive, the students form alliances. The privileged kids who come from powerful wizard families that make up enclaves, have a strict advantage over other non-enclave-belonging kids. They have alliances, shields, power sharers, and all other kinds of things at their disposal. Plus, they have the added benefits of the safety in numbers and the fact that all the kids want to guarantee a position in an enclave upon graduation.


“…the last three years, I’ve had to think and plan and strategize how I’m going to survive every single meal in here, and I’m so tired of it, and I’m tired of all of them, hating me for no reason, nothing I’ve ever done. I’ve never hurt any of them. I’ve been tying myself in knots and working myself to exhaustion just to avoid hurting any of them.”


Unfortunately for El, she’s never been quite skilled at making friends. Until Orion Lake comes along. I really enjoyed their friendship and how it affects both El and Orion personally.  Novik does a wonderful job of demonstrating how these two very different people, with different affinities and privileges, are actually quite similar. And to top it off, I loved when El made other friends, with Liu and Aadhya. The female friendship was so empowering and I loved to see it. El’s determination to blaze her own path and to stand by her newfound friends is really a sight to see. 


My only complaint about A Deadly Education is that not much of the novel actually deals with magical education. I was a little disappointed that there were no eccentric teachers or interesting classes. Students learn from the magical school itself, for instance during language classes, El hears a voice whispering in her ear, and that’s how she learns. It’s interesting in itself, but it doesn’t do much to break up the monotony of the social politics and constant near-death experiences at the hands of the mals. Unfortunately, there are so many deaths, and near-deaths, that eventually, it gets to be a little anticlimactic. 


“Everyone—almost everyone—uses a bit of malia here and there, stuff they don’t even think of as wicked. Magic a slice of bread into cake without gathering the mana for it first, that sort of thing, which everyone thinks is just harmless cheating. Well, the power’s got to come from somewhere, and if you haven’t gathered it yourself, then it’s probably coming from something living, because it’s easier to get power out of something that’s already alive and moving around. SO you get your cake and meanwhile a colony of ants in your back garden stiffen and die and disintegrate.”


Despite the lack of focus on the actual magical curriculum, A Deadly Education somehow does a solid job of magical world-building. My favorite part was the dichotomy between magical power sources—malia and mana. Mana is the “good” power source, which has to be built up through a concentrated effort, like exercise or crochet, of all things. Malia is the more sinister power source, which sucks up the life force of an object or being in order to power magic. In turn, the usage of malia takes a toll on the user, and they start rotting on the inside. I love that most of El’s classmates, including Orion, wrongfully assume she is a malificer, when she has never once used malia in her life, and is determined not to for the justifiable fear of what would happen to the people around her. 


“In case it makes you feel better,” I told him irritably as we walked to lunch—he’d even stayed with me after class—“if I ever do go maleficer, I promise you’ll be the absolute first to know.”

“If you were going to go evil, you’d have done it by now just to avoid letting me help you,” he said, with a huff, which was—spot-on, actually, and I laughed before I meant to.


A Deadly Education, with its memorable characters, hilarious narration, and magical world is definitely up there in my favorite reads for this year. It’s such a fun novel to read and I found myself snorting aloud at El’s sarcasm and her relationship with Orion many a time. If you love strong characters that challenge the norms of their archetypes, magical worlds, and interesting social dynamics, this is the read for you. 

Book Review : A Deadly Education - Blogging with Dragons

Posted October 12, 2020 in Book Reviews, Fantasy


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