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A Deadly Education

By Naomi Novik

Book review, full book summary and synopsis for A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, a story about a young female wizard in a dangerous school of magic.


In A Deadly Education (Scholomance #1), Galadriel, or El, is a junior enrolled in a school of magic, where dangers lurk around every corner. El has a strong natural ability for the dark arts, but is determined to stay away from all that. Still, it's been prophesized that El is the bringer of death and will sow destruction in her wake.

When the school's golden boy, Orion Lake, takes an interest in El, it opens up new possibilities for her, but new dangers as well.

(The Full Plot Summary is also available, below)

Full Plot Summary

Chapter-by-Chapter Summary
See the Chapter-by-Chapter Summary of A Deadly Education
Quick Plot Summary

Galadriel ("El") is a junior at Scholomance, a school of magic. She's also someone with a very strong natural ability for mass destruction and the dark arts. She doesn't want to be a dark wizard (a "maleficer"), but her affinity for destruction limits her ability to use her powers in other ways. Learning non-destructive spells is much more difficult for her, while destructive spells are overpowered in her hands. Others can often sense her darkness, too, which is why El is a loner.

There are two types of power that can fuel spells: malia and mana. Malia (the "bad" type) draws from the life-force of other living things, and users of it are known as "maleficers". Whereas Mana (the "good" type) is generated through effort, like exercise or labor. El is "strict mana".

Orion Lake is a very well-connected classmate, considered the "hero" of their class. Orion's family is part of the New York enclave, the most powerful enclave in the world and his mother is soon to be the leader of it. Enclaves (identified based on location) are groupings of wizards that share power and protect each other. Entry into an enclave is highly sought-after, and everyone sucks up to students born into enclaves, called "enclavers", in hopes of securing a spot.

Orion starts hanging around El because he suspects she is a maleficer who had something to do with the recent disappearance of one of their classmates, Louisa. However, the actual culprit, Jack, ends up attacking El, and Orion saves her. After the misunderstand is cleared up, Orion continues to hang out with El. It leads to a major boost to El's popularity.

There are three educational tracks at school: incantations, alchemy, or artifice. El is an incanter and has a project that requires all three disciplines to complete. She recruits Aardhya (artificer), an acquaintance of hers, and Orion (alchemist) to help. They create a magic mirror. Afterwards, the mirror repeats a prophesy that El has already heard before, that El is the bringer of death and will sow death and doom and bring down enclaves.

Scholomance is structurally designed to protect young, untrained wizards from maleficaria ("mals"), dangerous creatures that feed on wizards for their mana. Still, mals manage to get in, so students must be on alert, especially loners like El. Moreoever, in order to graduate, seniors cross through the lowest floor of Scholomance (considered the "graduation ceremony"), which was designed as a barrier to keep mals outs. It's an area overrun with mals and many die in the process. Preparing for the "ceremony" is a major part of being a student at Scholomance. There is a scouring machine that goes through the halls of the entire school twice a year with a wall of mortal flame that kills all the mals. The lowest floor ("graduation hall") has one, too, but it's been broken since 1886. Attempts to repair it have left powerful wizards dead.

El is in the library when she finds a maw-mouth, a unstoppable mal whose presence means certain death. There is only one known instance of killing a maw-mouth, and it involved nine powerful wizards. El manages to single-handedly kill the maw-mouth. She doesn't think anyone will believe her afterwards and tells no one.

The New York enclavers are puzzled by Orion's friendship with El, since he has never show much interest in anyone else including themselves. They eventually extend El a high-prized invitation to join their enclave, but El has come to realize that she wants nothing to do with the elitist enclaves that prey on and exploit others' desperation. Instead, El works to parlay her new social capital into an alliance with Aardhya and another friend, Yi Liu, for their ceremony next year. El feels lucky to have real friends now and people to watch her back.

While Orion's heroics has saved hundreds of students from mals, that means the mals are now desperately hungry, especially the ones in the basement. They've created a hole in the barrier which is how the maw-mouth ended up in the school. Orion has been trying to patch it up, but El learns that a group of seniors have been knocking out his repairs in hopes that mals will feed on the lower-classmen to sate their hunger somewhat before the ceremony.

Together, El, Orion and some of El's friends (all juniors) manage to collectively repair the barrier more securely. But the seniors are angry about this. After some argument, a plan is formed for El, Orion and a group of talented seniors to attempt a repair of the scouring machine in the graduation hall before the ceremony in one week. After much preparation, a group of 20 of them manage to get in and make repairs, though two die.

When they return to the main floors, the warning bell has gone off signaling that the scouring machines are about to run. Soon, the seniors have now departed, though whether they exited into a newly-scoured hall or one crawling with mals is unknown. El and Orion decide to formally start dating. Induction happens, where new freshmen are magically drawn into the school. One of them comes bearing a letter from El's mother. It reads: "My darling girl, I love you, have courage, and keep far away from Orion Lake."

For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary.

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Book Review

A Deadly Education (Scholomance #1), by Naomi Novik, is the first book from Novik’s planned Scholomance Trilogy. In Novik’s new series, the wizarding world is a dangerous one, full of monsters and creatures that feed on wizards and the power they possess. Meanwhile, El is a junior at the school who has unusually powerful natural abilities but is unable to make use of much of it due to its destructive nature.

Like in her previous novels Uprooted or Spinning Silver, Novik has, once again, created a world that is imaginative and compelling. There is a bit of an information dump in this novel, just because there’s a lot of unique qualities in her world that need to be explained, like the mechanics of a school that functions without teachers or the void where everything comes from.

I won’t try to explain it all here, but it works. I thought it was all really interesting and thoroughly conceived, and I loved reading about it. She also lays down a number of details that I imagine will come into play later. Novik’s writing is very accessible, and she imbues the story with some wry humor which I appreciated. The book went by very quickly for me.

In terms of substance, A Deadly Education deals with a lot of issues regarding social divisions and the disparities between classes of people. This is a book that has something to say beyond telling one character’s story. It’s easy to see how these issues, even when dreamed up in a wizarding school located in a magical void, can find parallels in institutions and societies in the real world.

El grew up with her mother, residing outside of the safety and comfort of the “enclave” classes of people. Throughout the book, El tussles with her feelings about the exploitative nature of enclaves and her own desire for the protection that enclaves can provide.

The book also touches upon things like privilege and entitlement. For example, Orion comes from a very well-connected enclave family and certain provisions have been made for him and his comfort without his even knowing it. El and others must take on “maintenance shifts” (mandatory drudge work), but Orion, despite being a well-meaning boy with good intentions, has no idea what it entails or even that he has avoided that responsibility because it’s been taken care of on his behalf and unbeknownst to him.

El also struggles between the relative ease of relying on dark magic (“malia”, which gets power from the life force of other creatures) and the painstaking effort of generating a morally superior power source (“mana”, which is generated based on labor-intensive activities).

I am also a much bigger fan of the El and Orion romance that I have been of Novik’s past romances (in Uprooted or Spinning Silver). I thought it was charming. El is a bit meaner to him than I’d ideally prefer, but considering that she’s an outcast with her defenses up, I think it probably makes sense initially. I hope it’s something she matures out of as the series progresses.

I had a few quibbles like El acting a bit too petulant sometimes and little things like that, but honestly my main gripe is just that I’m impatient for the next book to come out. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten really excited about a series, so this was definitely a win for me.

YA or Adult Fantasy?

I would recommend this to both YA and adult fantasy fans. While the story does deal with some coming-of-age type issues (typical of YA novels), A Deadly Education also tells a multi-layered story about class, morals and difficult decisions that adult readers can fully appreciate.

The main character, El, is in high school, but she’s also making decisions about what she wants her future to look like that extend beyond school-aged-type concerns.

I have a pet peeve which is that some YA fantasy authors write books that are essentially YA in substance and then throw in very graphic sex scenes in order to argue that they should be adult novels. (And then all their fans go around haranguing people on the internet about book classifications.) That is not all the case here. While the characters act age-appropriate, I’d qualify A Deadly Education as suitable for both YA and adult readers because the issues it deals with can appeal to both YA and adult audiences.

Read it or Skip It?

I had a delightful time reading this fantastical, fun and fully-imagined book. While the characters are in high school, I would have no reservations recommending it to adults who enjoy fantasy novels. I grew up reading the Harry Potter books, and this definitely took me back to anticipating those book releases and the late nights spent reading them the day after.

When I started this book, I was planning on reading for an hour or two, but ended up staying up late into the early hours of the morning finishing it. I loved the fully-imagined world, but also the very specific choices in what type of story Novik was looking to tell. As much as I found this book really enchanting, I’m even more excited about what’s to come for this series.

See A Deadly Education on Amazon.

Book Excerpt

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Movie / TV Show Adaptation

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