Are There Lesbians? No
When she was nine El (shot for Galadriel, think the “all shall love me and despair” version) was prophesised to destroy the world. Now she is in her second last year at a magical school that wants to kill her, she can’t write an essay without inventing a spell to enslave minds, and worst of all, everyone’s favourite heroic wizard-boy Owen Lake has just saved her life for the second time.
I had A Deadly Education practically forced on me by a friend, and I’m incredibly glad I let that happen. It is one of the few books that I’ve managed to absolutely fly through this year, and was incredibly fun to read. While it borrows from several magical-school stories, A Deadly Education nonetheless stands on its own two feet and for the most part resists comparison to other magical worlds, even if there is a giant ancient magic school with lots of monsters regularly attacking students, and an over-confident prick with messy hair running around with a sword almost as big as his hero complex. But at this school the monsters are supposed to kill the students, which is more than a little gruesome, but we are assured that the children’s odds are remarkably better than in the wide world.
There are no teachers at the school – a construction named the Scholomance which is physically only able to exist in the void – so students are mostly left to their own devices and defenses. This actually provides some decent examples of true anarchy, and how an anarchic society would be able to be run without all absolute hell breaking loose (apart from the literal monsters of course), but I found, like most of the vague social commentary that worked its way into this novel, it didn’t quite go as far as I would like, stopping just short of actually saying anything definite. That being said, I was a big fan of how Novik explored the insidious hypocrisy’s of the hippie commune that El and her mother lived in, even if it wasn’t a major part of the novel, it gave me a really good look into the type of environment that El was raised in and exposed to from a young age, which in turn, gives you a very good understanding of her motivations.
As a main character, El is fantastic. She is snarky, half-indian and probably autistic. Given her potential ability to one day destroy literally everything, she apparently has a pretty formidable aura, which leads to horrible situations like a child being left alone screaming because no adults want to help her. So yeah, she’s a bit of a trauma baby. She simply doesn’t understand why anyone would want to spend time with her if they weren’t also getting anything out of the deal, and, as something of an oblivious loner, she goes for entire chapters before she realises that some of those people might actually think of her as a friend. Which, to be honest, I’ve been there. El’s belligerent and scathing attitude comes close to being annoying on a few occasions, but that isn’t particularly out of the ordinary for most oblivious teenage characters, and it’s pretty clear that this is a coping mechanism for having people basically avoid her for most of her life.
One issue I had with the writing in general, more because it broke my reading flow than anything else, was that it could occasionally get a bit repetitive. This was possibly in a bid to make sure the reader remembers what’s going on, because the text can get a bit lore-heavy at times, but is frankly a little annoying when you just read practically the same line of exposition three pages ago. I also strongly feel that this book might have worked better with a softer magic system, as, again, it did occasionally feel a bit lore-heavy with detailed descriptions of the mals (the name for magical monsters in this world) that felt quite shoe-horned in simply so the reader would have as much information as possible, and I am a firm believer that sometimes less is more when it comes to description.
Apparently there is more than a bit of controversy around a passage where El is discussing the practicality of certain hair styles (short so nothing can grab you), and a mal that attacks through dreadlocks. This kind of just made me roll my eyes, but from an intellectual perspective I know that this taps into a much wider conversation about locs being regarded as “dirty” or “unprofessional” through the associations white people have with dreadlocks (and no the vikings did not have fucking dreads they braided their hair). As a white girl with nonblack friends I do not feel entirely equipped to weigh in on any conversation about this with any real knowledge on the subject, but I feel like it should be at least addressed here in my review and my opinion is mostly that it was not cool. Novik has apparently apologised and promised to do better, so I am happy to wait and see if this proves true.
I have more than a few theories and things I would love to see in the next book, which thankfully we shouldn’t have to wait too long for, as book two is slated for release in July next year. Thank goodness for prolific authors.