Do you ever have a book that you suspect you’re going to love so much that you can’t bring yourself to read it? I’ve been putting off reading A Deadly Education for ages, because the hype was just too much, but I’m so glad I finally bit the bullet, because I think this might be the best book I’ve read all year.
Book: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
Read before: No
Publication date: September 29th 2020.
Ownership: E-ARC provided free of charge via NetGalley. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Violence including murder, injuries, gore, many gross ways to die, and minor character death (none of this terribly graphic); black magic including using life force of others mentioned; suicide mentioned in the abstract; parental death mentioned.
I should start with a disclaimer: I really don’t think this book is going to be for everyone. It’s a weird beast, somehow simultaneously slow and fast. It’s full of hugely detailed discussion of its own worldbuilding, and if you don’t immediately click with the main character, it’s probably not going to be your cup of tea. That being said, I adored every single second of it, so if you have similar taste to me, you’re going to be on cloud nine! I’d compare it to early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – teen snark meets horrifying monsters via a little light romance – or possibly if someone handed black magic to all the characters of Heathers. Picture a school whose corners are full of monsters ready to eat up tasty little magical kids – no teachers in sight, of course, so classes are self-taught and survival of the fittest is in full swing. Amongst the Scholomance’s students is El, an extremely jaded young woman who just wants to survive to graduation without succumbing to her innate talent for evil, and who is plagued by the unwanted help of Orion, an adorkable cinnamon roll prone to heroics and not at all prone to noticing when someone really doesn’t want to be his friend. When your own school is trying to eat you, and some privileged wannabe hero won’t stop saving your life, things can’t get much worse, right? Wrong.
I adored El. She’s a fascinating set of contradictions that makes her feel really unique – she has a true affinity for city-levelling, world-dominating evil, but steadfastly refuses to acknowledge it. When the school offers her a new spell to learn, it’s usually lethal even if she asked for the most innocuous charm, but rather than diving headfirst into the darkest of magic and using her power to rule the school, she tries to keep herself on the straight and narrow. She’s so guarded that the other students find her intensely unlikeable – but I found her combination of self-awareness, smarts, and black humour completely winning. She starts off as someone who, rejected by her peers, has decided to reject them right back, and as someone who spent most of school using that as a coping mechanism, I connected with her instantly. Her voice is just so vivid and engaging – though she tries to pretend she doesn’t care about anything, she’s so interested in so many things that she drags you with her into long explanations that provide a huge amount of information about the magical world. I loved her so much, and it was definitely her voice that sucked me into the book so hard.
I can see people being turned off by the incessant flow of information that El provides, and I’ve read several reviews deriding this as infodumps, but for me, it was exactly what I’ve been longing for in a book since I was a kid. Here is a magical world hidden next to ours, and the main character is as interested in how it works as I am! She never stops feeding us tidbits of worldbuilding, and I found the whole thing enthralling. Yes, give me all the three-page digressions about the history of a particular grimoire or a painstakingly accurate description of how the language classes work – this is the stuff I live for. You get a real sense that though the world is completely everyday for El and her peers, she’s spent plenty of time considering how it works. There’s a great balance between these deep dives into things, and moments where she’ll say offhandedly ‘a yarnbogle skittered around the corner’ or something and you won’t even bat an eyelid even though a yarnbogle’s never been described before, you’re just like ‘yup, sounds about right’. The worldbuilding is so good that you start to feel like you just know what’s normal. I literally went to the bathroom last night and had a short panic that I hadn’t checked for any monsters. It’s that immersive.
There is so much of this book that I can’t talk about without giving huge spoilers, and I really think it’s one you should go into fairly cold so that you can get the full effect, so the next few sentences are going to be intentionally vague. I adored El’s character development – it’s far from a simple progression. I loved heroic idiot Orion Lake and his weird growing friendship with the school’s resident loser. I loved the wide array of students from all over the globe, and the way the classes ran to accommodate the many different languages needed, let alone the huge variety of skills and spells needed – I really got the sense that every student would have a wholly different experience according to their needs and affinities. I loved the ingenuity of all the different kinds of monsters, and, speaking as someone who usually hates action scenes, I loved all the monster fights! Basically, I loved this book from the first line to the last – and oh my god, what a last line it was.
I said on Twitter that if you’re someone like me who was always frustrated that Harry Potter never went to his damn classes or told us what he was learning, then A Deadly Education will scratch that itch so well it’ll be like it never existed. I just want to see behind the scenes of every magical school, and A Deadly Education offers the perfect kind of immersive, all-encompassing setting for me! If you are someone who dislikes description, this may not work for you (though there is plenty of action too!), but for me, this was a book I could luxuriate in, soaking up every detail.
Look, this was the most fun I’ve had reading a book in as long as I can remember. It managed to do something I didn’t even know I was waiting for, and give me a painstakingly well-described world to get lost in the detail of, a main character I could identify with incredibly strongly, and a story that snuck up while I was looking at those two things, grabbed me in its teeth, and refused to let go. I was grinning throughout. I will be astonished if this isn’t my best book of the year – it’s made me want to retroactively knock a star off everything else I’ve read so far. Simply stunning. Not even ten out of five cats – ELEVEN.