Book Reviews, Young Adult

Review: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Image: A paperback version of A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik sits on a navy blue sequined backdrop. (Julia Dath)

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.
  • Buy the book here
  • Page Count: 336
  • Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
  • Content Warnings: Death, violence

Living is lethal in A Deadly Education. In this world, having access to magic means a young death. The only chance for magical kids to survive is to attend school at the Scholomance.

But just because you’ve made it to the Scholomance doesn’t mean you’ll live. Monsters looking to prey on students lurk in every hidden corner of the school. To have no allies to watch your back is basically a death note.

El sticks to herself in the school. She’s not one for friends, and nobody knows that beneath the surface, El wields enough power to wipe out every monster in the school and beyond. But this power is dark and sinister, and using might just kill everyone else, too.

I’ll admit that this book really peaked my interest. I love my angst-filled YA, I love stories about magic, and I love books set at boarding schools. But unfortunately, not all of the pieces clicked into place seamlessly in A Deadly Education. What I hoped would be a dark, dramatic, and fun filled read turned out to be

I think A Deadly Education works rebuff comparison and association to the magical British boarding school story that we all know, branding itself as a ‘not your typical cute/warm/cozy magical school’, and I hope more stories fill this genre. It is an entertaining premise that is not owned by one person!

Let’s talk about Scholomance. All throughout, I just kept saying, why the hell would anyone send their child here? Novik repetitively provides answers to this question, explaining how the outside world is more dangerous and kids who don’t attend thee school usually die a gruesome death. So attending the Scholomance is one’s only chance at survival.

I can get into grim stories. But this book felt like it was piling on the horror just for the sake of being horrible. So you’re born with magical powers, and that means you’ll be attacked and killed by monsters as a child, or you’ll get sent to a school where for four years you’ll fight for your life against those same monsters, and then if you manage to make it that far, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll die on your last day? If you’re wondering what the main theme of A Deadly Education is, look no further than the name. Death, death, and more death are the constant looming threats of this story.

Galadriel, El, is not a hopeful protagonist. I don’t blame her. I mean, with these odds, it’s not odd to be completely soul-crushed. One of the other characters describes El’s demeanor by saying “You feel like it’s going to rain” and, honestly, they’re correct. El is a grim protagonist. She’s not hopeful.

And I think a bit of this story is about El gaining hope, but the persistent grimness of the constructed society really puts a damper on her possibilities. El is reserved and tactical. She thinks more about what people can offer her in terms of survival chances instead of considering any opportunities to care for or humanize other characters.

I wanted so badly to empathize with El as a character, because going to the Scholomance obviously sucks, but her clinical approach to other people bothered me consistently. It felt like she began the journey to understanding the value of being people as humans and not assets, but hopefully that plot will continue into the second book.

There’s an attempt for a diverse cast of characters, and El herself is written as biracial, being half-Welsh and half-Indian, but some of the shallow descriptions and detached rhetoric El uses to describe her peers aligns with what readers and writers of color have been speaking out against white authors writing in the name of ‘diverse books’.

I’ve read lots of different reviews from people who’s communities are represented in A Deadly Education because some of the descriptions in the book did not entirely sit right with me and I wanted to know what other people thought. Novik has apologized and edited one section of the book for insensitivity, but it is a small part of the bigger picture with this book and the way minority characters are spoken about in the story. I encourage readers to seek out other opinions on this source, not just mine, perhaps with this thorough analysis by A Naga of the Nusantara, a post from BookRiot, or elsewhere.

At the same time, I’ve read reviews from people who see their communities represented in this story that take no issue with the book. Just something to consider as a reader and a consumer.

One thing I did enjoy about this book was the subtle romance. The book immedately sets up a premise of El resenting the golden-sunshine-hero boy Orion. Orinon is affluent, popular, and is constantly saving people. He cares a lot and is the opposite of El in many ways. The two form an unlikely friendship, which brings much needed humor and heart to this story. I’m looking forward to seeing how El and Orion grow as individuals and as a duo in the sequel.

Overall, I was a bit underwhelmed with A Deadly Education. I liked the premise, but found that the story felt like it got so wrapped up in proving that it was dark and scary that it dragged a bit. Hopefully I can get my hands on the sequel soon, though, because I’d love to know what happens to these characters!

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