Naomi Novik opens A Deadly Education with what ought to be a perfect narrative hook: “I decided Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life.” (p, 3) Who’s speaking? Who’s Orion? Why does the narrator want to kill him? And why the second time he saved the narrator’s life? The narrator is El (short for Galadriel, but she almost never tells anyone that) Higgins; Orion is Orion Lake; and they are both students at the Schoolomance, a magic school in England that was purpose-built in the late 1800s to meet the peculiar characteristics of magic use in the slightly alternate history that Novik has set up to make her story go.
Magic uses mana, which can be built up through effort or taken from the life force of other living things. Unfortunately, the world is also full of monsters, maleficaria, who love to feast on mana and even more so on the magicians who wield it. “Thanks to my freshman year Maleficaria Studies textbook, I know that our deliciousness goes up another order of magnitude every six months between thirteen and eighteen, all wrapped up inside a thin and easy-to-break sugar shell instead of the tough chewy hide of a grown wizard. That’s not a metaphor I made up myself: it’s straight out of the book, which took a lot of pleasure telling us in loads of detail just how badly the maleficaria want to eat us: really, really badly.” (p. 18)
Wizard parents send their teens off to the Schoolomance, whence a large share of them will never return, because the odds of living to adulthood without the protections offered by the school are even lower. About ninety-five percent lower, as El tells her readers. The school was built by Manchester artificers of the Edwardian era. It is something like a pocket dimension with accommodations for all students, classrooms, labs, cafeteria, and so forth. It has a guiding intelligence that offers the students lessons but also does things like makes the spell that they most need to learn next only available in a language that they have barely begun to comprehend. The school’s defenses ensure that monstrous attacks are merely commonplace, as opposed to continuous.
The students have chances to learn and to live, if they are fast, lucky and resourceful. And often ruthless, as Novik shows in various ways. The wizarding world outside the school is far from egalitarian, and relations within the school often reproduce those structures. Kids from powerful families or from well-placed enclaves (sanctuaries in major cities that wizards have built up over generations) can get kids without those advantages to do chores or maintenance work for them by promising help into an enclave after graduation. Given that chores and work both detract from time spent learning the magic kids need to survive and also expose them to more possible maleficaria attacks, it’s a decked stacked in favor of the already rich and powerful.
El is always telling her audience how deadly the school is, but in fact almost no named character fails to survive, and the few who are killed mostly fall during the book’s climactic sequence. More than that, Novik has set up two main characters who are practically immune to the school’s dangers. El herself is a sorcerer of frightening potency, all the more so because her in-born specialty is death and destruction. She has to be extremely careful that her cleaning cantrips to not modify themselves into engines of fire and fury. In Bullwinkle’s immortal words, “Huh, I don’t know my own strength.” The other character with striking immunity is the aforementioned Orion Lake. Maleficaria just aren’t interested in him. He doesn’t understand it any more than anyone else, but there it is. He has rescued dozens and dozens of students from mal attack, some of them multiple times, building up a heroic reputation.
Each day at the Schoolomance is a gauntlet of deadly dangers (for characters who aren’t El or Orion, at least). Students don’t go to the bathroom alone, they don’t want to be the first to breakfast lest something be lurking in the cafeteria, but they don’t want to be the last either, lest something catch them alone and unguarded in the corridor. Classrooms may be haunted. Lab lessons are likely to go malevolently wrong. Study time might feature the school moving needed books onto an endlessly receding library shelf, or it might feature signs that teen alliances have shifted and someone is going to be left out in the cold. Not making it to your room before curfew is a literal death sentence in almost all cases. Then they get up and do it the next day, while trying to learn languages, maths (the school is in England), sciences, and various types of magic. Also while navigating the usual trials of adolescence, although those take a back seat in A Deadly Education.
In fact, the students’ routines remind me most of the kind of day described by Solzhenitsyn in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Only Solzhenitsyn was describing the inhuman conditions in prison camps run by a totalitarian tyranny. In Novik’s book it’s supposed to be fun, or if not fun then at least adventurous in some way, and readers are supposed to be caught up in attempts to form alliances and the other schoolish aspects that she has set up. Only I could never look away from the environment that she had set up, even if (and perhaps specifically because) most of the book’s characters seemed to be immune to it. The way the characters behaved did not strike me as how teens would respond to continuous brutalization and trauma, which is certainly what the environment offers. I never really got past the clash between the Schoolomance’s purported brutality and the actions and concerns of the characters.
Some bits do wind up being fun; Novik’s irrepressible and occasionally irresistible. I particularly liked the bits El told about her mom, who is a famous healer. With those parts I could begin to see an interesting set of stories outside the contrived arena of the magic school. A Deadly Education is a finalist for this year’s not-a-Hugo Lodestar Award, and it’s the first in a trilogy; I doubt that I will be returning for the next lesson.