Welcome to the Scholomance!
Imagine if Hogwarts was actively trying to kill the wizarding students that attended it, there were no teachers, and the main character was a Slytherin who didn’t have the time of day for Harry’s heroics, and you’ll start to get an idea of A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik. (It’s not really fair to compare every book with a magical school to HP, but it does tend to make for easy-to-understand shorthand.)
El (short for Galadriel, to her aggrievement) is a Junior student at the Scholomance, and staying alive has been as much of an education as anything on the official curriculum.
Wizards send their children to the Scholomance knowing that they only have about a 50 percent chance of making it through schooling and out into the world alive again because the odds are better than the one in ten wizard children who survive outside of school.
The school is, in fact, a giant magical construct designed to protect the young wizards from maleficers, wizards who draw life energy (known as malia) from everything and everyone around them. Only, like everything in 2020, a problem arises: the protections on the school have failed, which makes sense because this is a wizard school after all and it just wouldn’t be a school year if something wasn’t trying to kill all of the students.
For her part, El deals with attacks by mals - both the wizards who use malia and their constructs - more than most. She’s both an outcast among her fellow wizards, and a truly powerful wizard in her own right - meaning she’s more than a tempting morsel for a mal to snack on.
Meanwhile, Orion Lake, a heroic do-gooder with an affinity for destroying the mals, has rescued so many of the kids in the school that he’s everyone’s favorite. But when he rescues El from a soul-eater he finds her less-than-grateful (she didn't need rescuing, dang it, she had a perfect spell saved for the occasion!) and their oddball relationship begins to develop into something that the rest of the school looks on with varying degrees of concern and loathing.
For all the good Orion has done, there’s an imbalance in the magical school, and as the danger ratchets up, El may be the only one who’s powerful enough to rescue her classmates.
This is if she can stand them long enough to save them, and they aren’t making it any easier. It’s not that she’s been ignoring them until now: she can’t afford to do that. She’s kept tabs on every one of them: who owes who a favor, who’s willing to make a bargain or a trade, who she can trust (and to what degree) to watch her back while she does something simple like take a shower or something complicated like complete an artifact assignment that takes more than normal concentration.
But... How do you care about people you don’t even like? El does, in spite of her affinity for destruction, murder, and mayhem. Not only does she refuse to harm her classmates, but she also does everything in her power to minimize the chaos that she could easily unleash - not incidentally making her schooling that much more difficult. (The Scholomance is certainly a setting-as-character, and strongly encourages El to live up to her full potential, regardless of what that might mean for the other students.)
Good Vs Evil
El has a lifetime of being shunned and rejected, and her great-grandmother prophesied early in El’s life that she would reign down destruction on the world and the wizard enclaves.
Yet El’s mother has never been anything but deeply devoted to raising El with love and understanding, and her influence helps El make the hard choice over and over again, even though her mother didn’t want El to go to the Scholomance, didn’t want El to join an enclave, and has worked her entire life to distance the two of them safely from the wizarding world.
El’s struggle to continue to do what’s right, over and over, in spite of constantly being confronted with easier - yet worse - choices is as resonant as it is satisfying.
Meanwhile, the enclave kids have it (relatively) easy in the Scholomance. The privileged families that live together in the enclaves (another form of magical construct) are able to provide resources and extra magic to their children. The other kids, desperate for a chance to get in with them, will do just about anything for a guaranteed spot in an enclave when they graduate, giving the enclave kids another advantage: it’s easier to get a good night’s sleep when someone else will do your extra credit homework for you or make sure that the lock on your door is functioning properly.
El, without any of that support, is understandably bitter; yet as things get stranger and stranger over her junior year, she has an easier time seeing beneath the surface of people’s situations to the humanity beneath them.
It’s a valuable thing to consider; neither the enclave kids nor the other outcasts (some of them with maleficer leanings) are all-good or all-bad, and as El comes to know them better, she gets a better understanding of herself and her place in the world. This slantwise look at privilege and favors is timely, yet it’s utterly natural within the story. As characters of all backgrounds peel away the layers of their own assumptions about each other, it creates a dynamic parallel to our own world.
Although the exposition and explanations could lean toward heavy-handed (there’s a lot of world-building here in relatively few pages) told through El’s biting perspective and sharp observations, the story stays fascinating and lively throughout.
Anyone who’s ever felt like a lonely outcast, especially in school, will sympathize with El even at her worst. When things come down to it, El’s ability to find the best in people is, strangely (or maybe aptly), more important than her affinity for destruction or her power. A Deadly Education is a triumph, concluding satisfactorily, and ending with just a single seed planted to let us know that, yes, thank Novik, there’s more on the way...
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rachel Ayers lives in Alaska, where she writes and hosts shows for Sweet Cheeks Cabaret, daydreams, and looks at mountains a lot. She has a degree in Library and Information Science, which comes in handy at odd hours, and she shares speculative poetry and flash fiction (and cat pictures) at patreon.com/richlayers.