I am a big fan of pretty much every Naomi Novik book I have ever read (I still need to finish the Temeraire books please be patient with me) so A Deadly Education was very high up on my (mental) Most Anticipated Books for 2020 list. I was lucky enough to be granted access to an early digital review copy by the publisher so I get to tell you in advance whether this book is worth reading!
A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets. There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere. El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.
I went into this book with very few expectations beyond ‘magical school’ so I was kind of expecting a dark academia sort of story with floppy-haired sorcerers brooding on plush armchairs – so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that this book was…something else.
One of the most significant things I found was that this book doesn’t start with a ‘freshman’ character. At the point where the book starts El is only a couple of years away from graduation, I liked this because it means the story could go to different places, El already knows what’s what, we get to see her navigate the halls with a degree of confidence. The book is written in first person so I imagine it would have been pretty devoid of substance if we were learning everything at the same pace as the narrator! I’ll be interested to see how many books we get in this series since in theory the next year is El’s graduation year but time will tell!
This setting was incredibly cool. I will say I got a little confused by the layout of things at first but gradually I managed to understand this strange rotating school that gradually lowers it’s classes towards the graduation hall. The fact that any pipe, vent, or crack in anything could contain a lurking creature ready to kill the unsuspecting student was really well done. Naomi Novik manages to convey the exhausting effects of being constantly on guard against potential death and I really felt for the characters. What I thought was also well done was the way that Novik conveys the benefits of the scholomance – otherwise I think I would have spent the entire book wondering why on earth anyone would choose to go there?
The magic was also very cool. It was a fairly hard magic system, though you don’t get a blow by blow account of how all magic works it does get explained fairly well. I liked the way that spells were another thing students could barter and the development of new spells throughout the book was very cool. I won’t spoil it but I think this will be good for booklovers (without being a book about books).
One thing I will touch on is the recent discourse about non POC authors writing books from the perspective of a character of colour. In this case El is biracial and (as far as I a aware) this is not an ownvoices representation. I don’t think the rep was damaging in any way but I thought it would be remiss not to mention, and those looking for stories that go more into the lived experience of people who are biracial might find this lacking. Obviously I’m a white lady so can’t comment on this from any position of authority and, as always, urge you to seek out the opinions of ownvoices reviewers.
This book is a fun story, I liked the characters, I even enjoyed the romance (it’s not a big focus of the book but it was fun). I loved being inside El’s head as she was just so delightfully cynical and grumpy – I could relate. The one thing missing, and it has been missing from every Naomi Novik book I’ve read, was LGBTQIA+ representation. You have a whole school of kids and not one mention of anyone LGBTQIA+? Or if there was it was blink and miss it. I still really enjoyed the book but I will keep singing ‘it should have been gay’ until the end of time. I’m not asking for tokenistic representation I just feel like if you’re going to put out a magical school story in 2020 there had better be some queer youth…
Overall I would say this book is worth reading, and I’ll certainly keep reading the series – the setting is what makes it amazing so if you want to read a truly unique magical school then I humbly place this recommendation at your feet!
My rating: 4/5 stars
I received a free digital advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley – all opinions are my own.
A Deadly Education is out September 29th
What say you? Is this on your list? Let me know in the comments below!