A Deadly Education
October 26, 2020 9:53 PM - by Novik, Naomi - Subscribe

Naomi Novik, author of the Temeraire novels as well as Spinning Silver and Uprooted, kicks off a new series with a bang. A school for magic, you say, I’ve heard that tune before. Not like this...

Galadriel Higgins is a half-Welsh, half-South Asian future dark sorceress. Except she really doesn’t want to be. Her hermetic deathtrap of a school keeps shoving apocalyptic spells at her, when what she really needs is a cantrip to clean up the squicky remains of the creatures constantly coming for her and everyone else who can’t afford the best protective spells. She could also really use some allies to help her make it to Graduation alive...
posted by sixswitch (30 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Nice! I have spent the past few days half-heartedly looking for something to sink my teeth into. This should get me out of my malaise. Thanks for posting. :)
posted by Literaryhero at 1:26 AM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think it is a testament to Naomi Novik's skill as a writer that I liked this book -- a lot -- really a lot -- in spite of the fact that major parts of the basic premise Do. Not. Make. Sense.

From the complete lack of adult supervision (NO ONE was willing to live there on a permanent basis to keep an eye on the kids?) to the deadliness of graduation (they just ... gave up on repairing the defenses? at the school where all their kids -- ALL their kids -- are going?) to the death rate of adolescent mages outside the school (you couldn't even maintain a population with those numbers) to the fact that no one has even tried to put a better system in place in the last 100 years (yes, supposedly the school was irreproduceably built by insane geniuses, except that early on the book also talks about other people planning to build alternative schools, but they just haven't bothered yet, I guess).


The voice of the narrator was fantastic. The thematic thrust of the book is A+ solid. I always wanted to find out what happened next.

So in the end, I just ... accepted the stuff that Makes. No. Sense. There are things other than worldbuilding, and this book has 'em.
posted by kyrademon at 3:58 AM on October 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

Given the terrible neglect/wilful destruction of the American education system (and the complete refusal to pass decent laws to avert school shootings and in-school policing), what you're describing, kyrademon, sounds to me not only NOT nonsensical but worse--recognizable.

I'll be really interested in reading this and I haven't read anything by Novik before, although Spinning Silver been suggested to me.
posted by dlugoczaj at 8:30 AM on October 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

I just read this Sunday and yesterday. It was very good, and a testament to Novik's skill that I predicted early on that I would get quite tired of Galadriel but didn't.

There's a brief section in the book saying that the most powerful wizard in the world had tried and failed to repair the defenses, and that they had also sent in a massive crew of people to attempt it and that only two survived (possibly insane after? I can't remember). I think they tried two or three times before giving up. Anyway, I was able to accept it and keep going.

I don't remember the book explaining why they didn't just abandon that school and build a new one, though maybe it did. If I had to guess, I'd guess that since the spells for building an enclave are such closely-guarded secrets, the spells for building a magic school might be even more so--but that might not be the canonical explanation, or even close.

dlugoczaj, Uprooted is good too. In fact, this one reminded me of that one, except where that one struck me as wry and charming, this one struck me as deeply, deeply angry. Still, I liked it.
posted by johnofjack at 8:49 AM on October 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

dlugoczaj, I'm not in complete disagreement with you -- in fact, one thing that very much did NOT appear on my unbelievable-worldbuilding list was "the rich kids have a higher survivability rate, and it's explicitly at the expense of the poor kids", which more than anything else might be the central conceit of the whole book.

johnofjack, the book absolutely made good-faith efforts to explain everything I had a problem with. It's not that it didn't try. I just ... didn't buy it sometimes. I'd rather not go into nitpicky details about why, so I'll just leave it at that. I still thought it was a really good book.

Both Uprooted and Spinning Silver are excellent books by the same author. Interestingly, a number of people had the same problem with both (although I did not), which is that the main love interest in both is kind of a jerk. One thing I therefore thought was extremely interesting about A Deadly Education is that, in a sense, it is told from the POV of the main-love-interest-who-is-kind-of-a-jerk. But I thought that people who had that issue with the other books might like this one more, because getting Galadriel's internal monologue ends up creating a lot of sympathy and understanding from the reader about her outward behavior.
posted by kyrademon at 9:00 AM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

I don't have much to say except I really liked this! I especially like that it's a YA fantasy with touches of romance without the obligatory love triangle!
posted by Anonymous Function at 10:09 AM on October 27, 2020

Interestingly, a number of people had the same problem with both (although I did not), which is that the main love interest in both is kind of a jerk.

See, I loved the fact that the main characters in both of those books immediately recognized "wow this guy is an asshole," and only when the asshole in question sees how awesome the protagonist is and softens toward her does she begin to return his feelings. It's a particular kind of passive power fantasy and I can see how it might turn some people off, but in neither case does the main character overlook the guy's dickishness, like happens in a lot of wish-fulfillment narratives.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:49 AM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

I also tore through this book in less then 2 days =)

One of the explanations I took away from the "deadly" nature of the school was that, in addition to (or maybe even because of) the very deadly nature of being a magician, which is the cause of the high mortality rate of young magicians in and outside of the school, all the magicians (adults and teens) have a different perspective on what acceptable losses are. They are all raised to believe that many of them will die before majority anyway, and the school improved those numbers significantly, even with the failed defenses, so thats good enough! Combined with the (social commentary) discrepancy between the mortality rates of the rich and poor teens, the rich/powerful are even less motivated to expend the effort and lives (of the richest and most powerful, natch) to repair the school's defenses.

In many ways the mortality etc fits with a historical perspective rather than a modern first world one - high infant mortality rates have been the norm throughout human history, and the concept that every child should be expected to live to adulthood is a relatively recent idea. The magicians society in the novel apparently doesnt have that cultural norm.

As for the specific technical difficulties, I had the idea that the adults can access the school only through the graduation gate, which is closely guarded on the school side by the maw mouths, whereas the students inside the school could access the defense machinery to repair it at some remove from the maw mouths. So the students were in a better position to effect the repairs than a group of adults coming from the outside anyway.
posted by Illusory contour at 12:06 PM on October 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

From the complete lack of adult supervision (NO ONE was willing to live there on a permanent basis to keep an eye on the kids?) to the deadliness of graduation (they just ... gave up on repairing the defenses? at the school where all their kids -- ALL their kids -- are going?) to the death rate of adolescent mages outside the school (you couldn't even maintain a population with those numbers)

Obviously mages have an R type reproductive system, producing many "cheap" offspring that parents give limited care and protection to. Thus the high death rate of young mages is a good thing, because otherwise they would overwhelm the ecology. We should be careful of transplanting mages into an environment without natural predators, lest we end up with a situation like rabbits in Australia.
posted by happyroach at 12:08 PM on October 27, 2020 [9 favorites]

[can I just say this is my first post to FanFare and I am SO HAPPY]
posted by sixswitch at 12:39 PM on October 27, 2020 [8 favorites]

Now that the defence mechanisms are (at least partially?) fixed, the 'R-type' [pew pew] reproductive strategy won't require any population transplanting to lead to ecological catastrophe. I'd also say it's more like poisonous cane toads than rabbits.
We'll just have to hope that crows learn the trick of eating wizards.
posted by Marticus at 3:03 PM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

(they just ... gave up on repairing the defenses? at the school where all their kids -- ALL their kids -- are going?)

They didn't just give up. They tried several times and gave up after the incredibly powerful mages they sent in died horribly.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:57 PM on October 27, 2020

I enjoyed this a lot too. I read it during quite a stressful time and it was pretty much perfectly paced for my mood and needs at the time. I didn't worry myself with thinking about plot holes and just went with it.
posted by knapah at 6:03 AM on October 28, 2020

Nice! I have spent the past few days half-heartedly looking for something to sink my teeth into. This should get me out of my malaise. Thanks for posting. :)

Well I was right, I read it in about a day and a half. While I agree that there are some parts that don't hold up to scrutiny, over all I think the book was just about perfect.

Problem is now I am in another kind of malaise, the one where you just finished a really good book and now don't know where to turn next.
posted by Literaryhero at 9:18 PM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

posted by Marticus at 9:33 PM on October 28, 2020


Sadly I am all caught up there. However there look like a few other promising books posted in Fanfare just above this one so I might be ok for a little while. :)
posted by Literaryhero at 5:27 AM on October 29, 2020

I could go on a recommendation spree, but my go-to is checking the hugo & nebula short-lists.
posted by Marticus at 2:32 PM on October 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Literaryhero - if you're done with, and enjoyed, Murderbot, Martha Wells' other novels are also a lot of fun. I particularly adored her Raksura novels, which start with The Cloud Roads.

Re: A Deadly Education, what might look like plot holes now, I tend to think of as "currently unanswered questions" -- Naomi Novik has a way of tying up loose ends that makes me think there's more to come on that front.
posted by invincible summer at 4:46 PM on October 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ha, I also read this in about a day and a half! Most of what I'd heard about it beforehand was dark Harry Potter and the dreadlocks controversy, which yeah, was a misstep, but not such a horrid one that it made me stop reading. It was fun, it kept my attention, and I liked Galadriel enough to not mind being so much in her headspace (I also definitely want to know what's up with Galadriel's mom, I have my theories, but they're just that - theories).

I liked Uprooted and Spinning Silver, but this was a lot more fun than either of those. I also liked the first parts of the Temeraire series (I never got around to finishing, just because the last books came out at a time when I wasn't really reading much of anything, and haven't gotten around to doing a full reread yet) - and something about the tone reminded me a lot more of those, even with all of the death.

Anyway, I'll definitely be reading the next one next year.
posted by dinty_moore at 6:46 PM on December 6, 2020

Ugh, I want the sequel in my hands already.

Spoilers ahead!

It wasn't a flawless book--there was a lot of interrupting the action for a lengthy explanation, for example--but this was some of the most fun I had reading a book in 2020. I just enjoyed El so much, and her sometimes obtuseness about friends and people who may actually like her as a person. Contrasted with her savvy and scrappiness and rightful paranoia when it came to the privileged popular kids who are smarter than Orion. I loved the heroism and tragedy of things like her taking out the mawmouth with no one knowing, and the emotional release when her friend figured it out. The contrast of her love-and-light hippy mother with El's destiny as a destroyer-of-worlds. The moment when she faced a wall of cleansing fire and Orion was finally rightfully awed by her.

I'm super curious about what's happening next. We've got to tear this horribly unequal system down, right? And now that book one has laid down a lot of the rules I'll find it easier to follow and tear through the sequels even faster. (I can't tell yet if my occasional confusion was due to 2020 brain fog, or it being actually convoluted at times.)
posted by j.r at 6:08 PM on January 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'm super curious about what's happening next. We've got to tear this horribly unequal system down, right?

After I finished, I went back and looked at the prophecies about El again because I had an inkling, and what do you know:

Great-grandma: “She is a burdened soul who will bring death and destruction to all the enclaves of the world if not stopped.”

Magic mirror: “Hail, Galadriel, bringer of death! You shall sow wrath and reap destruction, cast down enclaves and level the sheltering walls, cast children from their homes and-“

Sure sounds like the endgame is, indeed, tearing down the system.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:58 PM on March 11, 2021 [5 favorites]

I personally am obsessed with what the implications of that very last line might be. And relatedly, I have a suspicion that perhaps Orion’s incredible and apparently unique abilities did not just come about randomly (and maybe El’s didn’t either). Both of them have a vibe that they may have been deliberately designed for some purpose they’re not aware of. But especially Orion. An apparently unstoppable killing machine who sucks power from every monster he kills - and, quite possibly, from every magical human as well, since the power source is the same? In a war with other enclaves he would be a one-person army. As would El, if she had a good enough power source for her spells.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:07 PM on March 11, 2021

Oh one more thing. In the discussion about why people still send their kids to this place, there’s one factor I haven’t seen mentioned - getting these goddamn monster magnets the fuck away from the rest of your population. That’s even El’s main motivation for going. The book doesn’t explicitly mention it, but I have to imagine the enclaves are more than happy to be rid of most/all of their teenagers, because teenagers attract monsters that can kill everyone else, too.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:22 PM on March 11, 2021


One thing that is emphasized over and over in this book is that no magic is ever free. There’s always an internal or external cost for it.

Those enclaves magically keep hundreds of thousands of magicians hidden in (relative) safety all across the world. What’s the cost for that? Could the magic that sustains the enclaves be the source of the plague of mals in the first place?

I’m betting that’s why El was allowed to find that long-lost book - because it has the lost recipes for making the first enclaves, and it might just reveal that cost. And if that became known, it would go from “this system is unfair” to “this system is irredeemably evil” real quick.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:38 AM on March 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

I just reread this, and remembered the plot hole that bothered me most the first time: we hear constantly about how El has an affinity not just for spells of destruction, but for spells of mass destruction. And that she's insanely, ridiculously powerful. And they were heading into the graduation hall filled with countless creatures they needed to kill, and their plan was to have Orion kill some and hope against hope that they could fix the cleansing flame system to kill the rest. What I didn't get was, why couldn't El perform some mass destruction down there? It seemed like the perfect fit for her! Finally a situation where her affinity would be a good thing! She could even have swept the place with her own walls of mortal flame. Is there some reason I'm missing for why (in a book where she constantly explains her decisions and strategies) that never even came up?
posted by trig at 2:30 PM on March 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

I wondered about that too. Previously she’d said that the really powerful spells were so “expensive” that she couldn’t cast them without pulling mana from other people, but with access to the combined power reserves, maybe she could have...

I guess it’s a combination of “I’ve never actually TRIED these spells so it’s a huge risk,” “Orion channeling power from the mals to us is part of the plan,” and “I do not want people to know I’m capable of those things.” Tbh I think that last one is the main reason. But you’re right, it could have stood to be pointed out more in the narrative... and I can’t help thinking that the writerly reason is actually “because I’m saving that for the next book.”
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:37 PM on March 17, 2021

“I do not want people to know I’m capable of those things.”

Yeah, that's my guess too. But it still seems weird: nobody would suspect her of using malia this time (one of her explanations for why she didn't want to demo her powers before), the only people besides Orion who would know would be the seniors, who wouldn't have a chance to tell anyone at the school and make her immediate life any different - and everyone already treats her like a probable evil to begin with, and this could have been a chance for her to at least say "look, I bring death and destruction to mals, all right?"

It was just so weird that even when it seemed like they wouldn't be able to fix the machines, and the shield was starting to fail, she never even considered the option, even to the point of thinking about how it would make her look. And she did technically have practice: she went on a killing spree inside the maw-mouth. And she's been shown to be able to do spells effectively even without having practiced them (she even pulled out her mortal fire for what must have been the first time in the next chapter - where would she have practiced it without anyone knowing? - and seemed pretty confident it would work.)

Honestly, I just wanted her to bring up the possibility of going down there herself, alone, and letting loose - even if just to explain why she thought that wouldn't be a good idea. But a whole book of "she's insanely powerful" capped with "but let's ignore those powers in the exact context where they'd be relevant" was kind of a let down. (Though I really enjoyed it overall.)

I can’t help thinking that the writerly reason is actually “because I’m saving that for the next book.”

Probably! But Novik is such a good writer that I wanted her to at least lay out an excuse.
posted by trig at 2:12 AM on March 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

When I first heard the premise for this book (like Hogwarts, except it kills and eats the students, in Novik's own words*), I was very excited but a little worried it would read too much like an extended riff on Rowling, with too much effort reversing/improving HP cliches & not enough attention to making it a coherent & fun read on its own merits.
* I have a [Young Adult] book that I’m working on that’s very much a conversation with Harry Potter, as if Hogwarts wanted to kill and eat the students. The books I most want to talk to are the books that I love, even when I’m arguing with them. I want to argue with Harry Potter about the cost of magic; I feel like it doesn’t have enough of a price in [the series].
From interview in Paste, 2018
I should have known better! Novik is so good at this--however simply her mashup source material can be described (Patrick O'Brien with dragons; Rumplestiltskin with 18th-century Lithuanian Jews; etc., etc.), in everything I've read by her, she brings the story so far past the initial germ of an idea. Agree with all the above that there's lots here that doesn't make sense, and presumably a few things will be tied up/explained in the next book--but the strength of El's voice and the angry & welcome social commentary make it way more than a commentary on HP.

That said, I do love how much she undoes or inverts many HP and magical-education commonplaces. Wise and kindly instructors? Nope, no adults at all. A light dusting of Latin as the basis for all spellcasting? Nope, they work their asses off in ancient and modern languages to get any headway with spells at all. (And they study math!) Etc., etc. To the extent that she's inverting or sneering at genre conventions generally & HP specifically, I find it satisfying. I'm glad there's a lot more to it, though.

(Also: For those looking for other books to scratch this itch until the next one comes out--I am too, and I posted an Ask seeking recommendations for similar stories--particularly ones that use an economic metaphor for how magic works and what it costs, which is so fruitful & well done here--there are some interesting suggestions in there.)
posted by miles per flower at 1:29 PM on August 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

For those looking for other books to scratch this itch until the next one comes out

It looks like that might be right around the corner
posted by trig at 4:43 PM on August 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

First chapter of the next book is online.

posted by bq at 8:52 AM on August 28, 2021

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