Happy Tuesday, Dear Readers! I hope you're all safe and well (and if you're not, feel free to let me know in the comments, I promise to offer you comfort and virtual hugs).
Remember that THE BOOK OF SNOW & SILENCE ebook is currently available for pre-order on a special Kindle deal for under £2 just now, so get in there if you want it. And if you do buy it, please consider reviewing once you've read it, since reviews are life. Speaking of which... today's blog is a review and I am *excited*.
Naomi Novik is one of my favourite writers working today.
She's famous for the Temeraire series: alternate history Regency-era fantasies where intelligent dragons essentially act as airborn artillery in the British armed forces as they battle against Napolean. I really liked the Temeraire books and have read all of them - but not until after that series was complete and Ms Novik published UPROOTED, which can be taken as a very loose Beauty & the Beast retelling, did I become a superfan. And I do mean a superfan. UPROOTED pressed every button that my fairytale and folklore obsessed heart possessed, and I loved it so much that I recommended it to literally every bookish person I met for the next year.
I had her next book, SPINNING SILVER, on pre-order the moment it was available on the Waterstone's website, and when it turned up and my sad, RSI-weakened hands could not actually hold it long enough to read it (it's a hardback and it's chunky, OK, and I need to be able to bring books up close to my face because my eyes are rubbish) I turned around and got the ebook, but kept the hardback anyway because it was signed. Me. This perpetually skint, compulsively thrifty person. Who even am I? This what the prospect of a new Naomi Novik book does to me.
So the female-focused folklore inspired fantasy was a pretty big departure for the author of a very, very successful and long-running series with a male protagonist. And A DEADLY EDUCATION is yet another daring swerve for the author. It's what I would call contemporary urban fantasy, or maybe contemporary alternate history (the 'everything's the same except there's a secret magical world' variety) and hovering right on the edge of the crossover market. When I saw this pop up in Netgalley I nearly dislocated my finger, I hit the 'Request' button with such fervour. Only afterwards did I notice that this wasn't another fairytale inspired novel, but something entirely different. I prepared myself to maybe not love it quite so much.
Ha. Yeah. Nope. I would still sell my immortal soul for this woman.
First, I need to get this out there: this is an absolutely bonkers book. I can't emphasize enough how barmy it is. Story. Characters. Tone. It's like nothing you've read before. But! At the same time, it IS. Because it is straight-up parodying not only Harry Potter but the parade of other 'magic highschool' novels which followed in HP's stratospheric wake.
This is a book that has set out to answer the question so many of us have asked regarding Hogwarts as we looked back at the series as adults: who in the heck would ever send their kid there, and WHY would they allow them STAY there when the kids are writing letters home saying: "Thanks for the new socks. Got an A in Transfiguration but only a B in Herbology. Oh, and there's a giant savage three headed dog chained up in one of the corridors that would kill any of us instantly - and we learned lock-picking spells in charms today! Love to Dad."
As a kid, you just imagine how damn cool it would be to get to go to Hogwarts and have adventures, but as the aunt of several nieces who just barely managed to survive to adulthood despite excellent quality helicopter parenting and notable lack of magic wands, I do wonder... why would an adult who is responsible for the welfare of hundreds of vulnerable children hide the Philosopher's Stone in their school, practically guaranteeing that Voldemort's agents would turn up there? Who approved sending eleven year olds into the Forbidden Forest in the middle of the night for *detention* without even ensuring they would have adequate adult supervision when a unicorn killing monster is known to be in there? Not to mention the giant spiders? What about the Whomping Willow? Allowing school to stay in session after all the adults are damn well aware that the Chamber of Secrets has been opened again and a deadly unidentified creature is on the lose within the walls? VOLUNTARILY ENTERING KIDS INTO THE GOBLET OF FIRE???
I mean, what is WITH this place? For heaven's sake, if you didn't know any better you might almost say it's like they're trying to, I don't know, kill the kids off on purpose somehow, cull out the weak, sift the wheat... from... the... ?
Yep. That's totally what the Wizarding world was doing, isn't it? Sorry, readers, but it's true. You're lucky your Hogwarts letter
never came, because chances are that you wouldn't have made it out
alive (me either, for the record).
Really, only Harry Potter's bulletproof rose-tinted glasses - conveniently provided by a total lack of the proper socialisation and vital attention required by a developing child, not to mention the routine starvation, neglect, and physical and emotional abuse of his family - allowed us, the readers, to believe anything different. The cupboard under the stairs made even a life in which he was continually thrown into near-death situations by his adult caretakers and expected to save everyone seem great by comparison as long as people fed him and noticed his existence. But for anyone else... well. I think Hogwarts would seem pretty much like Naomi Novik's invention in A DEADLY EDUCATION: the Scholomance.
Scholomance is what Hogwarts was really like. No one is happy to be on this school's admission list. It's effectively a meat grinder for magical kids. You're all alone there - there are no teachers, the school itself sets your assignments and punishes you gruesomely if you fail - and if the kids kill each other off? Well, what happens in Scholomance mostly stays in Scholomance. And you're not only potentially under attack by other kids, who want to move up the rankings, oh no. You're also under constant attack by 'mals', magical monsters who slurp up the fresh and shiny life force of children as if it were Mountain Dew and which, despite the best magical protections the school has to offer, have a nasty habit of popping out of the scrambled eggs on the breakfast buffet, from out of the plugholes in the shared bathroom, and even through the keyhole of your dorm room in the middle of the night.
Now, of course you can avoid going if your parents take you off the list - but even though your odds of getting out of Scholomance alive are roughly one in four (yep, it's brutal) it's still better odds than staying out in the world, where magical children going through puberty are monster magnets and your odds are more like one-in-twenty - and that's IF your family belongs to an 'enclave', a sort of wealthy, influential and privileged Feudal compound, with powerful adults who will probably be willing to risk their lives to defend you. Once you hit eighteen or so, the monsters don't consider you particularly interesting anymore, but in the meantime, you put everyone you love, including younger siblings who aren't yet going through puberty, and older relatives who may not have strong enough magic or the right affinity to defend themselves, in danger.
And if you're not in an enclave, like the heroine of this story - Galadriel, or 'El'? Well, not going to the Scholomance is basically just hoping that when the monsters eventually DO get at you, they eat your mum (or dad, or big sister, or the neighbour lady) first and give you time to get away. This is not cool with El, whose mum is a hippy ray of sunshine, an insanely kind, positive and powerful healer who only ever uses her power to make the world a better place and refuses compensation for any of her work. She's totally alone in the world and only escaped the Scholomance herself as a teen because Galadriel's father - knowing that El's mum was three months pregnant - sacrified himself to a hideous monster to save her life. El's mum lives in a commune in Wales and is beloved by everyone who meets her. She could have the pick of any powerful 'enclave' in the world. Except. Except that El is NOT an insanely kind, positive and powerful Healer.
Oh, she's insanely powerful, all right. In fact, she can pull the lifeforce out of any other wizard she likes, no matter how strong or well-defended, at the blink of an eye, and has an affinity for enchantments of darkness, destruction and death. When free-writing poetry, she accidentally creates spells to invoke supervolcanoes. She can literally kill you with a flick of her hand, and from a small child, people who look at her are inexplicably filled with (depending on their character) fear, revulsion or awe. Her own father's family, despite having adored her deceased father and practically worshipping her mother, tried to off her when she was a kid because they, vegetarian, Pacifist Good Wizards, were convinced she would bring about the endtimes, and was better off dead.
The only reason she is not already ruling the universe 'ALL SHALL LOVE ME AND DESPAIR!' style is that, thanks to her mum, she actually doesn't WANT to hurt anyone. Which, predictably, drives her up the wall, because the way people, even quite nice people, treat her - as if she was automatically a horrible, wicked person - means that she WANTS to want to hurt them. She just can't bring herself to really DO it.
El is Bellatrix LeStrange, if she had been brought up to have an unshakeable moral compass. Killing people and being wicked, cruel and villainous would be a piece of cake for her, and in order to be good, she has to work about ten times as hard as a normal person, because every time she uses magic it wants to twist into something dark. And she knows that if she gave into that urge, even once, she would end up respected, feared, unstoppably powerful, and SAFE - but also, on the path to becoming the monster she's determined never to be. She's bitter, caustic, antagonistic, and perhaps the most purely decent and moral character I've ever read. I LOVES HER MY PRECIOUS.
So much for our setting and protagonist: this is where people reviewing fantasy books usually talk about 'the magic system'. Personally I hate that phrase. Look, you have a drainage 'system', don't you, and how it works is that it's made out of metal pipes, and when you turn a tap it runs, and if it breaks down then you call someone with a spanner who will replace a part and it will work again. Magic, being the "non-meat by-product of existence", something fundamentally non-classifiable, illogical, elemental, spiritual (thank you, N.K. Jemisin) may have rules or ideals or spells, but if it has a 'system' - for instance, the one in Harry Potter, where you wave your wand a certain way and say certain words and unless your wand is broken or you got the gesture or words wrong, you get the same result every single time, just like flushing the toilet - pretty much bore me to tears.
This is why I always see questions in reviews for *my* books asking why the 'magic system' wasn't better explained and why didn't we get all the consequences explored and classified and why didn't I put down exactly why and how it all works? BECAUSE IT'S BORING! It's not a supposed to be like a magic trick, where there's a logical explanation for everything and the rabbit was up his sleeve all along. It's suppposed to be actual magic. And with actual magic, just like art, sometimes you do all the right things and it turns out awful, and sometimes the power of love is enough to fix everything and sometimes the power of love is enough to ruin everything, and somethings the thing you hated and sweated through and got wrong in every way is the best thing you ever did.
A DEADLY EDUCATION has *that* kind of magic. The good kind. The kind where there are certainly rules and spells, but where, just like in Garth Nix's or Lois McMaster Bujold's work, effort and intention are what powers your magic, and your dread and fear or even joy can warp reality (just like Heisenberg said! Well, sort of). I love how this kind of magic can have all kinds of unexpected effects and the interaction of differing factors can invent something entirely new.
The writing is absolutely smooth as silk. Not fancy, or lyrical, but just utterly competent and powerful and brilliant. You barely notice you're reading, it's so smooth. It feels like when Neo gets a programme for martial arts downloaded into his brain and just KNOWS how it works. And as a result the story is totally unputdownable. Gripping is an understatement. I downloaded it and began reading it at about 4pm and finished at 11 at night, having taken the smallest and most rushed breaks possible to eat, shower etc., each one of which felt like waking up from a dream I couldn't wait to get back to. However! I can sense that some readers - ones not as enamoured of Ms Novik's writing as I am, or as into the MC's unique, spikey narratuon - might find some of the exposition a little heavy, especially to start with. Ms Novik plays that trick of dangling something incredibly juicy at you and then using the tempting tidbit to lead you through a few pages of necessary information. Personally I'm all for that; I love worldbuilding. But if you're not, I recommend that you just push through it. It is WORTH it, trust me.
Secondary characters are a real strength in this, sketched with humane deftness, humour, and compassion, from the tentative friends to the out-and-out villains. We understand them all, even if perhaps we might wish not to.
I do note, though, that Orion Lake, the unlikely best friend the heroine makes basically against her will - and the character who gets the most screen time next to El - is probably the one I felt I knew the least. I wonder if that's because he's so clearly there as the Harry Potter analogue: the heroic Chosen One who always charges in to save everyone without thinking twice about his own life, or the consequences, but really just wants to be treated as human. I felt as if we were already meant to know him. But the thing is, he WASN'T Harry. For one thing, he comes from a life of immense privilege, not one of poverty, abuse and neglect - and he completely takes that privilege for granted, ending up totally shocked and bamboozled everytime El is forced to bitterly point it out to him. And every now and again he would do something deeply NOT HARRY-ish and make me really keen to get to know him better. But I never really did? Hopefully future books take care of this. Actually, I can't wait!
Overall - as is absolutely no secret by now - I adored this, wish I could go back in time immediately and read it again for the first time, and would be willing to read another five to ten books of it - preferably right now? This is a solid gold 100% recommendation from The Zoë-Trope. A DEADLY EDUCATION is out at the end of September. Run out and pre-order or put it on hold/request at your library instantly, or a maw-mouth will get you!
(Language Geek Alert: maw-mouths are the worst monsters in this book. I laughed for five minutes straight when I saw the name, and I like to imagine Ms Novik cackled in a similarly unhinged fashion when the name occurred to her, too. You see, a maw-mouth is a creature that has a lot of mouths. Thousands. And the word 'maw' just means mouth. So their name basically means 'mouth-mouth'. But the word 'maw' is pronounced 'more'. So they're mouth-mouths and more-mouths at the same time - and that's literally what they are! GENIUS).