Naomi Novik is one of a very few currently working writers whose novels I will immediately grab and read—Frances Hardinge, of course, and Ursula Vernon/T. Kingfisher if it’s not a horror one, and Geraldine Brooks, and maybe Becky Chambers, and maybe John Irving? I generally read the John Scalzi books fairly quickly, mostly because Tor does a good job making them available fairly quickly. Kazuo Ishiguro, yeah. I can’t think of anyone else.
Anyway, when A Deadly Educationbook came out, I grabbed it immediately and thought “Oh, crap. I am so all done with books set in schools of Magic and Magic. Why couldn’t she have written another Eastern European fairy tale novel? Fine, I guess I’ll start this one.”
And then I started it and it was all dark and deathy and grim and Hungergamesy and I am so very all done with books set in schools of Magic and Magic that dial up the bodycounts and misery. And oh, Lord Above, this is obviously the first book of a trilogy. But, as I say, Naomi Novik has a lot of Author Points in my personal reader bank, so I kept reading. And our main character was uniquely powerful even within the school of Magic and Magic, and there was a prophecy about her, and I really, really loathe Chosen One stories about uniquely powerful prophetically-predicted protagonists.
And, you know, I’m still a little cranky about it. I still feel like there are a lot of Naomi Novik books that I would rather have exist in the world. On the other hand, the actual books that she actually wrote are really good, and I enjoyed them a lot.
Quite a long time ago, I wrote that the major themes of Frances Hardinge’s books are: (a) Do not trust any member of the hereditary aristocracy, however personally well-meaning; (2) Wealth is always obtained at the expense of the impoverished, and the more invisible the impoverished are the worse their conditions will be; (iii) Monsters are everywhere but can be vanquished, even (sometimes) accidentally; and (δ) Powerless people are powerful together. These are, I said at the time, excellent themes, and these are also the themes of the Scholomance books (of which A Deadly Education is the first). Unlike Ms. Hardinge, Ms. Novik appears to accept the possibility of an inheritor of hereditary wealth (fairly explicitly replacing the titled aristocracy with ‘enclaves’ which present themselves as allowing meritocratic inclusion but actually provide nugatory tokenism and vast hereditary wealth and influence, which, you know, fair enough) earning some trust over the long haul, which is a much less devastating and probably less accurate critique. Ah, well.
And, of course, for both writers, the themes are merely themes, carried by extraordinary storytelling, imaginative world-building and mostly entertaining characters. And fun. There’s a fair amount of fun in this series, particularly considering how violent and even gruesome it can be.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,