Review: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

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The Scholomance is a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death. Until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets.

Why did I want to read? Uprooted and Spinning Silver are two of my favourite books, and I love magical school stories, so this was kind of an insta-buy for me.

I’m not going to lie, and honestly it would be counterproductive to hide this fact: this review changed a lot from what I envisaged upon finishing the book. Truthfully, I loved A Deadly Education, and gobbled it up in a day. I’m always a fan of books which feature an unreliable narrator who is unreliable about themselves, rather than events in the story, and that’s absolutely what Galadriel Higgins is, without a doubt.

I flew through this book uncritically, and it was only as I had time to think about it afterwards that I started to see the flaws. Even upon finishing, there was some things that felt a little off. This book certainly had flaws. I think it suffers in comparison to Naomi Novik’s standalone novels, because rather than a climactic conclusion that I’ve come to expect from her plots, everything felt like it… petered out a little. I left the book simply feeling like it had laid groundwork for whatever came next in the series.

But – more importantly – in the two weeks since I’ve finished this book, discourse around A Deadly Education has blossomed and also brought to light a number of problematic and ultimately tone deaf aspects of its handling of race.

Unreliable Narrators (who absolutely do not have feelings)

So, firstly – the good, because I would be lying if I said I did not enjoy A Deadly Education. I found certain aspects of this book unexpected and refreshing, a change from Novik’s typical style.

While I enjoy Novik’s heroines, they have tended to fall into a particularly compelling mould: sensible, practical to a fault, and proudly unembellished. I think El Higgins is fundamentally different from Agnieszka, Miryem, Irina, and Wanda. For one thing, she is not an outsider to the magical world, but fully knowledgeable, if not a master, of its goings on. Unlike other books, in which you’re waiting for Novik’s characters to fully master their powers, in this book, you’re basically waiting (frothing at the mouth) for everyone else to realise how powerful El is.

She’s also… kind of a bitch, and it takes a while for it to become clear how much of that presentation is a defence mechanism, and how much is profound and intentional rage at a system that has disadvantaged El from its inception.

Novik’s writing style in A Deadly Education is a brutal in medias res. You spend the first half of the novel not only unpicking exactly what the Scholomance is, in all its nightmarish glory – a crumbling, failing school created by the elite that, ultimately, invites students in as both meat for the grinder of magical skill and as a free meal to all the ‘evil’, corrupted mages that would otherwise be hunting across the globe – and also exactly how El feels about the situation she finds herself in. For a good 30-50% of the book, El is prickly, unfriendly, and closed off, and her narration presents that as how she always has been. It is only as El begins to unveil the consequences of the Scholomance system, its social hierarchies, and her disadvantaged position within them, that you begin to feel like you can sympathise with her fully as a character.

I’m always trash for ‘unlikeable’ characters, but appreciated how Novik moves El from position of antihero to hero, as you realise how much El is justified in her dismissal and resentment towards her peers. I also loved her foil in this story: Orion Lake, a mage who has dedicated himself to protecting other classmates and acting as their protector from the dangers of the Scholomance, but does so from a position of extreme privilege. He is the ultimate emotional support himbo and I love him.

The Construction of a ‘Race Blind’ Urban Fantasy Setting

Now, onto the problems with A Deadly Education, which other people have detailed with far more knowledge than I have. I decided to use this subheading because it allows me to give my take on what I think was wrong with A Deadly Education, from a craft perspective. I think, honestly, a lot of Novik’s problematic and tonedeaf decisions regarding race could have, on a very basic level, been avoided entirely had she decided to make The Scholomance a secondary world fantasy rather than an urban fantasy. Obviously, this doesn’t excuse the ignorance and/or problematic choices that resulted in the unfortunate consequences in Novik’s representation – and I will link to other reviews discussing these in depth.

Novik has – justifiably – been held to account on a number of problematic decisions within A Deadly Education. The one that I noticed and made me uncomfortable on my initial readthrough was the decision to make Galadriel Higgins mixed race.

El is a unique character within the book, in that her magical affinity is with the destructive and corrupting forces of dark ‘maleficar’ magic. This wasn’t a choice on her part: in fact, she has no agency in that, unless she simply chooses to resist it. I think that this presented a really interesting conflict for the main character, because the entire trajectory of her character becomes a continuous struggle to be good, even with a handicap and many, many compelling reasons to choose the easier path, of ‘dark’, ‘evil’ magic. A really strong moment in this book was when El realises that her decision to refuse her ‘mal’ affinity is something that is core to her very being: that, even in the most dangerous and perilous moments, she refuses to compromise herself and use dark magic.

I felt like there were some clear synergies (both good and really, really bad) between El being torn between her ‘mal affinity’ and decision to live ‘strict mana’, and also being mixed race. It becomes very clear that a lot of the ‘mal’ casters become this way because of inherent inequalities in the Scholomance system: if you do not have an ‘enclave’ (a coven), then you have less magical protection and magical power, and you might have to resort to ‘mal’ methods of creating it. In this light, I felt like El’s desperate struggle to stay good in a gamed system when there are so many justifiable reasons to resent and want to reject that hierarchy perhaps was a good analogy for the experience of people of colour in academic and professional settings. El is forced to work twenty times harder than any privileged enclave kid, for absolutely zero recognition, and this is a handicap that the systematised discrimination within the Scholomance and the wider magical world has forced upon her. She could be amazing, but she has to play by rules that constantly work against her.

However, there are obviously some problematic implications with placing the burden of a struggle between the ‘light’ and the ‘dark’ onto your mixed race character. For one, El is constantly, constantly rejecting and fighting a part of herself, and this part of herself is placed in direct opposition to El’s Welsh, white mother, who is explicitly the strongest white witch currently alive. While her ‘mal’ affinity is never attributed to (and in fact reviled by) her Indian father’s family, the facts remain that El’s father sacrificed himself so that her mother could live, and El’s mal affinity is figured as being in opposition to her mother’s line.

The implications only continue to spiral out in worrying directions, not helped by the fact that El has been rejected by her Indian family (who want to murder her) and is thus unable to interact with her mixed race heritage in any meaningful way. Then, as the denoument, we have some really, really worrying remarks in the final chapter that ‘mals’ could be caused by people having sex in the Scholomance. These are never confirmed, but if they are true then El’s mal affinity is literally the product of any coupling, but in this case specifically it is a mixed race coupling, feeding unfortunately into narratives surrounding miscegenation. None of these decisions surrounding El are inherently bad, you just have extremely difficult terrain to navigate, even for someone writing from a position of sensitivity.

And unfortunately, there is a lot of justifiable doubt about whether Novik is that person. Aentee at Read at Midnight has discussed the way that Novik’s worldbuilding just ignores a bunch of inherently colonial and imperial implications of its own magic system. In their goodreads review, Asma describes the ‘clinical approach to diversity’ by both author and narrator, along with cataloguing the outright on page racism, particularly the ways in which languages are separated entirely from their cultural heritage and the people who speak them.

Both of these reviewers are much more knowledgeable than me. I’m also a white reviewer, so I’m not going to be able to accurately critique the racism in this book to the same extent, and certain implications completely passed me by until I read these reviews. Beyond anything, what frustrated me was the insistence on race blindness within what is presented as a modern day urban fantasy setting. El claims that racism was something she received only from ‘mundanes’. All real-world forms of discrimination are supplanted within the Scholomance by those based around the mal/mana divide, and the class structure of enclaves. This approach, in the year of our lord 2020, was just absurd to me. We are asked to believe that in the magical world, race is meaningless, despite it operating within the context of the wider world, which is fraught with racial discrimination. Aentee’s review covers this in depth – it’s just, honestly, wilful ignorance that the worldbuilding tries to encode within the reader. The “most powerful” casters we encounter are El’s mum, a Welsh, white, white witch, and the New York enclave: both of these decision are weighted, in a way that Novik refuses to engage with.

You could’ve easily – easily , if this was really the way you wanted to go – created a race blind secondary world. A Deadly Education is basically, for all intents and purposes, a high fantasy secondary world already, because we never glimpse the world beyond the Scholomance’s claustrophobic walls. Why, then, does Novik choose to make it urban fantasy? Was it solely to make this book series a spiritual successor to Harry Potter?

I don’t know. From a basic, craft perspective, I feel like genre is a conscious choice, and so should serve the story in some way. The urban fantasy aspect of A Deadly Education was functionally meaningless, particularly when Novik refused to engage with certain choices she made and the perspectives she chose to write from. Even if El was herself someone for whom real world prejudice wasn’t a big deal, why was this the case for every member of the Scholomoance? At the end of the day, the fact that you could easily erase all of these problematic and tone deaf authorial choices by simply wrenching the Scholomance out of the modern day contemporary setting and plopping it into a high fantasy without any difficulty showed exactly how much thought Novik had put into their far-reaching implications.

The way that the Scholomance functions as a raceblind fantasy space within our real world show exactly how tokenistic the employment of diversity actually was in the first place. It requires a suspension of disbelief that asks us to see it as separate from the world – which means, all of Novik’s choices are separate from the real world experience of minorities, as well. If we’re feeling charitable and decide not really sure Novik deliberately meant to riddle her world with unfortunate implications, at best all we’ve got to admit is that she didn’t employ diversity thoughtfully. She didn’t think through making El mixed race, she didn’t think about making the Scholomance a globalised entity (that might be writing back against Hogwarts, perhaps?) and she didn’t think through her worldbuilding.

Edit: Naomi Novik has written an apology on her twitter account, and is at least amending some of this problematic content.

A Deadly Education is, to put it mildly, a bit of a mess. I found the heroine incredibly compelling, and that was enough to make me read it at a lightning speed without thinking through anything else that was really happening on page. But on closer, deeper examination, the book’s attempts to create a racially diverse setting have backfired massively, in manifold ways.

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