Book review: A Deadly Education

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A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, the first title in her planned Scholomance trilogy, is the story of a young female wizard in a school of magic. Galadriel, or El as she prefers to be called, has a strong natural ability for the dark arts, which she’s determined to avoid. When the school’s golden boy, Orion Lake, senses her dark tendencies, he suspects her in the recent disappearance of a classmate. As the two get closer, new threats and opportunities arise for them both.

Novik has created yet another smart, compelling world with A Deadly Education. While there’s conflict between El, Orion the other students, it’s the teacher-free boarding school itself that poses the most significant threat. Essentially, it’s the educational equivalent of the uncle who teaches his nephew to swim by tossing him into a pool. I won’t give too much of that away here, but it works well.

The book also deals with the disparity between classes of people. Essentially, there are two classes of students: the “enclavers,” backed by a collection of established wizards in the world, and everyone else. The former are better equipped, prepared and supported in their academic career than the latter, which at the Scholomance can have deadly consequences. It’s not heavy-handed and easy to extrapolate into the real world.

The characters were quite well done. While El is a bit too petulant at times, her behavior becomes more understandable as her background is revealed. Likewise, shining star Orion has his own issues to deal with, and he becomes more sympathetic as time goes on.

The concept of the school — the setting for the entire book — really works. It feels dangerous, and is. Novik’s vision of a magic boarding school is very smart and well executed. There’s a good mix of action (wizards v. monsters if you’re into that sort of thing), relationships, and wry humor.

I’ll note that the book did focus quite a bit on the relationships between the teen students. As a reader in his 50’s I’d find my attention waning during some of these scenes, but that’s a function of my age, not Novik’s writing. I’m likely outside of this book’s intended demographic, so keep that in mind.

As I mentioned before, I also felt that El tended to be a little too sarcastic, and standoffish. Even when her classmates were being nice to her, she tended to reject that. I’d find myself thinking, “Come on, El. Give them a break.” But that’s me.

If you like the Harry Potter series or The Magicians books, you’ll enjoy A Deadly Education. Magic, action, teen drama, social commentary and a wonderfully clever setting result in a fun book. I’m looking forward to book number two.

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