Reviewer’s note: After I published my review, I read the reviews from BIPOC readers who pointed out harmful microaggressions within the book. I apologize for not reading critically and promise to do so in the future. For more information, please see Asma’s helpful review. Thank you to those taking the time to point out the racism and for doing the work.
I went into reading A Deadly Education already knowing that I would love it. Naomi Novik is one of those authors whose books have a bit of a following in the book community—Uprooted is on almost every one of my friend’s shelves. And I already knew Novik was a big supporter of transformative works—namely fanfiction—and anyone who has written and supported fanfiction, in my mind, can tell a good story. Or at least, a story that I want to read. I was right. Reader’s intuition usually is.
Deadly Education, in case you didn’t catch any of the buzz, is a dark academia book being compared to other famous magical school books. Think The Magicians except the students aren’t really witches or wizards—each student has an affinity that gives them special use over certain types of spells. Galadriel Higgins—El—has an affinity for mass destruction. Every spell that she receives in her courses or in a spell book that travels through the dark void surrounding the school is geared toward death. Other students are able to shift material or controlling the weather but El isn’t so lucky. But calling the other students at the school lucky would be overselling it. In fact, no one at the school is lucky. Only the students lucky enough to have been born to an enclave (a huge powerful group of magical people who protect one another). Because the school is literally trying to eat them. Mals—basically demons and other evil creepy crawlies–are attracted to the school the way that bugs are attracted to zapper lights. At the end of a term, half of a class is torn apart by the creatures. It’s just the way the school is. Only the enclave students and Machiavellian survive because they’re able to form alliances or figure out how to make themselves look less appetizing to the creatures that want to suck the magic or life force out of them.
El—an unlikeable sort with a penchant for turning even the nicest people away—who works harder than any other student in the school to try to save up as much life force as possible. Because she doesn’t want to turn evil, she must rely on manual labor—pushups, embroidery, physical exertion—to build up enough energy for even the most menial of tasks like lighting a lantern. And even then, the spells she’s given to learn would likely blow up her dorm than light her room.
When Orion Lake, Enclaver and golden boy save her one too many times, El decides he’s got to go. The last thing she needs is anyone perceiving her as weak, especially when the whole goal besides building life magic and learning spells is forming alliances to survive graduation (a free for all where the deadly creatures trapped in the bottom of the school are let loose on the graduating seniors and they have to fight their way out). Few survive. El’s own dad died saving her very pregnant mother on their graduation day.
What follows is a delightful, thrilling story that even made me emotional at times. El, despite being destined for destruction, is still a human girl who wants to live and fit in and have friends. She might be a bit rough around the edges but I loved her perspective and seeing this world and the Scholomance through her eyes. I loved watching that same perspective switch and watch her learn and grow. I was NOT prepared for the ending and if you read the book after, please find me on twitter so we can discuss. Naomi Novik sure knows how to build up to something.
You’re going to like this one if you like sunshine/grumpy pairings, dark academia, incredible and detailed world-building, and an enticing ending that will probably make you throw your book through a window.
I’ll warn that the pace can be a bit sluggish. The concept of the book is fun but the layering of the world-building can be tough to slog through at times. We know pretty soon on that the school is dangerous—deadly and horrific to the point of being Hunger Games level tragic. But also, I wanted to move on with the story without having El check under her bed or in her belongings a million times. That being said, when the Mals did come after El and her classmates, the effect was terrifying. A perfect gruesome read if you’re looking for something like it this October. Maybe just don’t read it before bed or by yourself. And be prepared for some ick descriptions of monster slaying. But they’re totally worth the ride.
And if audiobooks are your thing—the audio version is utterly charming. Narrator Anisha Dadia captures El’s irreverence perfectly. Just prepare to get utterly sucked in whatever form you read this and prepared to think about it on and off until Book 2 comes out! The characters are like little Mals, burrowing into your head and not letting you focus on other tasks—but in a good way!