YA author Namoi Novik dives head first into the magical academy sub-genre in A Deadly Education, the first book in her Scholomance trilogy. While the book is not being promoted as YA specifically, and it is a little more violent than the usual fare, it ticks all the YA boxes. A teenage main character, a distinct absence of adults and plenty of life lessons about friendship, loyalty and teen group politics. But before she gets to all of that Novik has to establish a fairly complex world from a decidedly narrow viewpoint.
Galadriel (“call me El”) Higgins is in the penultimate year of schooling at the Scholomance. The Scholomance is a school pulled out of the universe ostensibly to protect the wizarding world’s young who otherwise would be prey to a wide variety of hungry beings called maleficaria. However, even in the school they are not safe and the school itself becomes a Darwinian exercise in survival. There are no teachers, the school itself puts expectations on students and they essentially teach themselves. The students work their way downwards through the school year on year until they graduate at the bottom of the building. This is because those malefic beings can only come in at the bottom and work their way upwards and the older students are better equipped to defend themselves. That said, plenty of students end up dying along the way and the graduation ceremony tends to be a bit of a bloodbath in and of itself where only the strongest in magic and most well-connected survive.
When the book opens, El is not well connected. She is a loner, fighting against her own growing powers to cause destruction and her peers’ expectations that she will turn evil at some point (or that she already has). But circumstances contrive for her to form a combative relationship with school monster killer and classmate Orion Lake and later with a couple of others in her year. Together the four have to make broader alliances to survive and to protect their fellow students from a coming disaster.
El herself is close to an antihero. A spiky, unlikeable teenager who hides her light under a bushel and has a propensity for self-sabotage. But she is also determined, good-hearted and fiercely loyal to her friends. So that while she take some time to get used to, she grows on the reader as the tale progresses.
A Deadly Education presents a boarding school on steroids. Full of cliques and cabals, an environment in which it is literally dangerous to be on your own in the corridors and so shunning an individual can expose them to peril or death. Where the biggest political wrangling is around who you sit with at meal time (which is itself dangerous). Politics comes into the school from outside – some students are already associated with powerful wizarding enclaves and others strive to win their endorsement to join, assuming they survive to and through graduation. El tries to ignore all of this, usually to her detriment, but comes to find that having a few key alliances is not necessarily a bad thing.
There are a few issues with the way Novik has chosen to tell this story. The first is the amount of information dumping required to establish the world. Because of the limited setting, everything that happens or has happened in the “real world” outside the school has to be explained rather than shown. The second is the limited scope of the plot. As a stand alone, the plot does not go very far except as a part coming-of-age narrative for El. All in all, the whole plot can be summed up as a slightly more dangerous year at an already dangerous school for young wizards. But as the set up for a trilogy there are some interesting threads left dangling. The sequel (The Last Graduate, due in 2021) will presumably deal with El’s final year at school and hopefully drop some more information about the outside world. Which means the final volume should take El out into that world with her powers and alliances in place.
A Deadly Education is apparently Novik moving into more the more adult end of the fantasy spectrum. But while this is pitched at “older” readers, it has all the hallmarks of young adult fiction and sits firmly in the magical-academy tradition of books like Harry Potter or The Magicians. While it has a particularly cutthroat, violent edge, its focus is on a snarky teenager and her teenage companions growing up in a world without adults and it does not get much more YA than that. That said, it is likely that that target audience will get into this world and its characters and be hanging out for the next instalment.