Desert Isle Keeper
A Deadly Education
Boarding schools for the peculiar have been all the rage since a certain bespectacled young wizard achieved global fame, and the latest offering in this genre is A Deadly Education. A YA tale about friends, love and growing up, this charming story has a lot to offer.
When Orion Lake kills a soul-eater in Galadriel ‘El’ Higgins’ dorm room, Orion not only steals her chance to show the Scholomance just how capable El is of defending herself, he waltzes out to receive the glory and accolades, leaving her to deal with the odorous, slimy mess he left behind. That’s when she decides he has to die. She’d forgiven him for dropping an entire lab ceiling on her head a few months earlier while he was fighting a chimaera, but she can’t allow him to keep ‘rescuing’ her. She might not survive the experience. Not only will it make her a target for all the maleficaria (wizard eaters) roaming the school in the hope of making a tasty snack out of the budding sorcerers in the building, it will prevent her from attracting the attention of an Enclave. And El desperately needs their attention. In a world where monsters gobble up the magically gifted, the chances of surviving as a lone enchanter are slim. The more powerful you are, the more delicious they find you, and she’s an alchemic nuclear bomb. Literally. Her magical affinity is world destroying, powerful sorcery desirous of murdering thousands and leveling cities. An Enclave, a banded group of witches and wizards who work together and protect each other, are the only people who could use her talent and thus, are her only chance of survival. Otherwise, once she graduates from the Scholomance, she will attract the attention of all the nasty magic munching creatures out there and will either have to stoop to truly heinous actions to fight them off or surrender to her own demise.
Needless to say, El isn’t excited about either of the latter two options. Gaining the strength to truly work her magic on her own will require pulling malia, a process of stealing the life force (prefarably through torture) of sentient beings (preferably humans). The only other way to gain power is through mana, which can be earned through manual labor or suffering, or joining an Enclave, where power is shared as a group and grows exponentially as a result. Orion has a ton of mana. The son of a powerful sorceress in the New York Enclave, he has a core group of friends, also sons and daughters of New York wizards and witches, who share their magic with him. So why does he seem so obsessed with El?
Initially his interest is more a case of wariness. He believes she’s practicing dark magic and wants to protect the school from her evil. Once it becomes abundantly clear she’s not the guilty party, though, he continues to hang out with her. This is a totally new experience for El because she’s been persona non grata since she arrived at the facility two years ago – she’s ostracised for the weird vibes people get off her, and her less than endearing personality hasn’t helped. But Orion seems to see the caring person behind her snarky repartée and belligerent manners, which is making her feel almost too kindly towards him for murder.
The strengths of this story are the intricate world building, El’s journey of self-discovery and the author’s terrific writing. Ms. Novik has a gift for combining magic and mayhem to deliver a realistic look at human relationships, and for using her tales to examine the importance of having justice and equality in the world. Her smooth, clear prose and strong character building help to create a fascinating story for that worldview to shine through.
El and Orion serve as catalysts for change at the school – and the main reason for that is the change their relationship works in them. Both are freakishly powerful but while Orion has used his gifts for heroism, saving hundreds of lives, El has hidden her abilities for fear she won’t be able to keep them from wiping out the world. Her awkward frenemies relationship with Orion gives her hope and changes her perspective enough that she starts forming some tentative friendships. These aren’t Enclave kids but people like herself, outsiders whose families have had to struggle to survive. The author does a lovely job of capturing El’s growth as she figures out what she really wants from life.
For all that he is the hero of the school thanks to all the lives he’s saved, Orion doesn’t have any real friends. There are sycophants who hang out with him because their possibility of surviving goes up by doing so, but few who treat him as a real person. El does and that refreshing change allows him to share more with her than he ever has with anyone else. From El he gets an idea of what it’s like to live outside the privileged world of the Enclaves, and both of them start to question if the world their ancestors created is really the one they want to live in or if they want to build something better.
El makes a good narrator for our first person account of life in the Scholomance. The daughter of a loving and powerful good witch who is respected by the Enclaves but isn’t a part of them, El knows the intricacies of her world like few others could and eagerly shares every aspect of that knowledge with the reader. This slows the pace of the story at times, making the book a bit heavy in terms of information dumps but the positive aspect of that is that we thoroughly understand why the characters make the choices they do.
Ms. Novik’s fantasy novels always contain a dangerous battle between good and evil, and in this case that gives a somewhat dark, heavy tone to the tale. People die while going to school in this story, especially poor kids who have little magical training, are ill equipped to fight the maleficaria and often have to trade dangerous manual labor in exchange for the tools they need to survive. Kids use other kids as human shields on a regular basis, and to graduate seniors must battle their way through a room of starving monsters. Fortunately, there are funny moments which brighten up the story; I loved El’s dry, sarcastic wit, and El and Orion’s frenemy-ship moving towards budding romance adds joy as well. However, the focus is less on their (possible) love and more about the two of them sharing stories, realizing the unjustness of their world through their joint perspectives and questioning if what is is what has to be.
Which is, I believe, what the author really wants readers to think about as they peruse A Deadly Education. Is the world we live in fair and is it really the world we want? If that question intrigues you, if you are a fan of YA fantasy or of Ms. Novik, or if you enjoy books set in magical schools, then this is the novel for you.
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