An English boarding school for the children of wizards from around the world? Gosh, where have we heard that setup before? But rest assured, as introduced in A Deadly Education (2020) Naomi Novik’s latest series is a much more dangerous and sinister place than Hogwarts.
For starters, there are no adults at Scholomance; students arrive as freshman and graduate after four years — assuming they can pass their coursework in languages, incantations, and artifice (building magical things) while dodging the endless parade of bloodthirsty monsters who infest the school and prey on the vulnerable students. Even if the students make it to their senior year — and only about half do from each class — they have to make it through the final gauntlet of killer critters who lay in wait in the graduation hall. The only chance for survival is to form alliances with other students who have different skills than you to provide maximum fighting power and protection.
I was fairly bewildered through the first couple of chapters of this book. Novik drops the unsuspecting reader smack dab in the middle of the story without explaining anything (the previous paragraph’s summary was gleaned over the course of the whole book; you’re welcome), trusting her readers to be able to go with the flow and piece things together. If she wasn’t such a good writer, that might seem like a slog. But even when I had no idea what the hell was going on, I was hooked by the first-person narrative by Galadriel, who after nearly three years at Scholomance finds herself a an outcast among her classmates and completely lacking in the sort of alliance that will be her best chance for survival at graduation.
Fortunately, I was already a big admirer of Novik’s work, having read her Temeraire fantasy series (first entry His Majesty’s Dragon, essentially the Napoleonic Wars with dragons) and her standalone retellings of Eastern European fairy tales, Uprooted and Spinning Silver. I had faith that she wouldn’t leave me hanging forever, and she didn’t. In some ways, that aspect reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, where he makes no attempt to explain how the magic works — it’s just there, and the wise reader who goes along for the ride is rewarded with a thumpingly good read.
There are two more books in the series so far, and I’m definitely on board to visit Scholomance again.