A Deadly Education: A Review

“It’s always mattered a lot to me to keep a wall up round my dignity, even though dignity matters fuck-all when the monsters under you bed are real. Dignity was what I had instead of friends.”

A Deadly Education by Naomi NovikScholomance is a school for magically gifted students and a solid way to avoid the deadly monsters intent on eating tasty young magicians until you can form a strong alliance, learn the proper spells, and build out your arsenal of magical supplies. All of this is complicated for Galadriel “El” Higgins, whose powerful dark magic means that the school would much rather teacher her deadly incineration spells than simple spells for cleaning her room.

El has a good plan for surviving her junior year at Scholomance and coming out of it with a solid alliance to survive her senior year and the literal gauntlet that is graduation. A plan that goes out the window when Orion Lake saves her life for the second time.

Now instead of biding her time waiting for a chance to demonstrate her own immense powers, El has to waste her time convincing everyone she isn’t another of Orion’s lost causes. She also has to do this while adhering to strict mana–fueling magic with her own effort–lest she accidentally become a maleficer unleashing the full scope of her deadly magical potential.

No one has ever liked El and that’s made it easy to observe the inner workings of the school. It’s also left El prepared for the school’s cutthroat atmosphere and isolation. What El is not prepared for her is Orion’s continued efforts to save her, befriend her, and maybe date her.

Sticking with Orion could be the answer to all of El’s fears about surviving senior year. But with more monsters prowling the school than ever, El has to figure out to keep Orion from sacrificing himself for the greater good and how to avoid accidentally killing any other students while surviving her junior year in A Deadly Education (2020) by Naomi Novik.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Deadly Education is the first book in Novik’s Scholomance trilogy. The series started life as a Harry/Draco fan fic before being rewritten to be its own book. While I enjoyed this book a lot, it does have some problems including one correction to the text and some possibly racist portrayals/imagery (opinions vary widely so if you’re concerned, I’d read reviews before you pick up the book).

In the first print run a scene in the middle of the book (page 186) singled out the locs hairstyle as being targeted by some of the monsters in the school. This evokes racist stereotypes about Black hair and was a late addition to the book that was not present during sensitivity reads. It was a hurtful addition and Novik has issued an apology including actions being taken moving forward with the series. Reading the book as a white woman, this was the most obvious concern and I am glad it’s being addressed (removed from future printings and digital editions) and glad Novik issued an apology including next steps.

Asma’s review on Goodreads was one of the first to raise these concerns while sharing others about racist portrayals in the book. I’m not equipped (or entitled) to comment on any of these concerns but will say a lot of the textual issues pointed out do make sense with the worldbuilding. The Mary Sue calls the book’s problems a lack of “authentic representation” which feels like a more accurate statement.

El’s mother is Welsh and her father is Indian. El is only raised by her mother after her father dies making sure El’s pregnant mother survives graduation. Readers learn early on that El is also the subject of an incredibly dark prophecy which makes her paternal relatives want to kill her as a small child. So El, understandably, has no interactions with them. While there are many issues surrounding white authors (like Novik) writing non-white or biracial characters (like El), it’s always a balancing act. BookRiot has a post discussing this and also discussing why it’s okay for a character like El to be disconnected from the Indian half of her identity. This is a thread Nickie Davis also explores.

Lastly I want to direct you to the very thoughtful review from Thea at The Book Smugglers who helped me figure out how to approach my own review (and direct to the links above as well) and also this review from A Naga of the Nusantara which offers another response to some of the concerns about this book.

So that’s a lot. I absolutely understand and respect those who will choose to avoid this book after hearing about the initial error and fallout. That’s a fair and valid choice. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had heard about it all before I had bought and started reading my copy. That said, after disliking Uprooted and being impressed but not dazzled by Spinning Silver, I loved a lot of this book. I felt like A Deadly Education was exactly my speed.

El is an exhausting narrator. Her prose is snappy with a clipped cadence that makes the novel very fast-paced and makes the world building daunting as readers are introduced to El and her world. This choice feels fitting as the Scholomance itself is incredibly daunting and intimidating to students who can be (and are) eaten or killed at every turn by monsters attracted to their untapped magic.

A Deadly Education introduces readers to a sprawling, high stakes world set at a magical school where mistakes are deadly. A strong series starter that, I hope, will improve with later installments (and learning experiences). A Deadly Education is a dark, smart fantasy filled with a snarky, anti-hero protagonist, reluctant friendships, and surprisingly funny dark humor. Recommended with reservations (do your homework before you pick this one up).

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert; The Cruel Prince by Holly Black; All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman; Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey; An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard; Killing November by Adriana Mather; The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix; Deadly Class by Rick Remender, Wes Craig, Lee Loughridge; Carry On by Rainbow Rowell; And I Darken by Kiersten White; Fable by Adrienne Young