Book Review: A Deadly Education

A Deadly Education is the first in Naomi Novik’s new [YA] Scholomance trilogy about a world of magic. Not surprisingly, it’s drawing comparisons to Harry Potter: they both take place in a school, there are class divisions at play, and the main character is a bit of a loner. But there are differences. This one is darker from the jump, whereas it takes a while before you see the darker, murder-y side of the Potterverse. Also, you’re starting at Junior year of high school here, instead of middle school. Finally, instead of a nervous, sheepish Harry, you’re led through this magical world by a very surly girl.

Galadriel is a junior at the Scholomance, a “high school” for wizards, and is just trying to survive. Literally. The school exists because wizards are filled with mana aka magic that makes them tantalizing to maleficaria, or mals, which are crazy monster things that kill you. During the 4 years you live there, you’re entirely cut off from your family and, in between learning spells, you fend off mals as they come after you day and night. Each year, the school rotates on a giant gear, pushing the grades down a level until “graduation,” where they fight an onslaught of mals. While students are picked off throughout the year, about half of the seniors are wiped out at graduation. Only the strongest survive and A Deadly Education is all about being on your A game. There are no teachers – you learn from the school itself – and while there’s a cafeteria, there’s no friendly chit chat. Friends don’t exist, just alliances, and there’s no charming magical cuteness happening.

Before going any further, I’ll address the elephant in the room: there has been talk about representation in this book, mostly revolving around the fact that many cultures and ethnicities are represented, but only in a very surface manner. I can see and agree with this point but think it’s a symptom of everything being very surface to establish this magical world. There is a lot of ground to cover when you’re trying to explain mana and malia and maleficaria. It seems to me, this book serves to set the scene for a rich series. That said, J.K. Rowling managed to offer abundant backstory in the first Harry Potter with roughly the same amount of pages, so it’s possible.

The other issue is with the above passage in particular. When describing why long hair is ill-advised (with the implication that it’s “bad,” unprofessional, and a dirty breeding ground), the point is illustrated by highlighting only one style…a style that is most commonly linked with black culture. When black hair has a complicated history of discrimination, singling out a traditionally black hairstyle here is problematic. I don’t always catch some of these less-overt, unintentional moments of bias (that’s systemic racism at work, my friends), but even I heard a record scratch when reading this bit.

I’m happy Novik has apologized and vowed to do better…though I would like to know what corrections she plans to make in the future editions she mentions.

3.75 out of 5. There’s some solid detail around the magic itself, but that left little time for character development. I’d love some way more backstory on all the students and their families. That said, the final hundred pages really had me excited about the future series.

Pair with: An el diablo cocktail (tequila + crème de cassis + lime + ginger beer)