Ms. Novik is turning out to be a fairly prolific author. Her latest offering appears to be a new series rather than a standalone.
In this world, magic exists but it comes with a high cost. There are creatures called mals who are drawn to those with magic for they are sustenance for the mals. The most protected places for magic users are enclaves; basically a warded home or compound for an extended family. But, of course, not everyone is that well-to-do and poor children are the most vulnerable. And even for the enclaves, it is a constant challenge to keep their children safe; most magical children don’t survive childhood. So a school was built, the Scholomance. This edifice exists outside of normal space and time and was designed to protect the children from mals while providing an education in wielding magic; so that when they graduated, they were well-provisioned with protective spells. But it is dilapidated and poorly maintained. While survival rates are still higher than outside, every day is a test of survival even going to the bathroom or the cafeteria can be fatal. The mals still find ways to infiltrate the school and everyone has to be on their guard every second.
The worldbuilding is an awful lot of fun, with a definite tip of the hat to M.C. Escher, I think. While we are treated to some fun ideas, this is basically a young girl’s biography/diary. It’s told from the viewpoint of young Galadriel yes, her mother was a fan of Tolkien. Galadriel, aka El, is a very complicated and troubled girl. Her power is off the charts and she carries a sort of aura that puts people off most people hate her, including all of her family except her mother. So school is no different; she finds it impossible to make friends or allies. And one needs both to survive to graduation; or even go to the bathroom. If she could show everyone the extent of her powers, she would be sure to have eager allies despite whether or not they actually liked her. But she has secrets and knows it isn’t necessarily a good idea to let anyone know the real her. She encounters a boy in her class who is like the school football quarterback he has mad skills and powers for killing mals just about any of them, except maybe the horrendous and huge maw-mouths. But for Orion, it’s more than just having powers, it’s a mission. He takes it upon himself to look out for every student and save as many as he can. For El, with her twisted view of herself it looks like the height of arrogance. And that’s reinforced by his fawning groupies. But Orion has his own secrets and he isn’t what he appears to be. El and Orion develop a sort of love/hate relationship based on their shared desire to protect the less powerful students but all the other students become convinced they are really dating. This leads, of course, to the usual peer judgement. But meeting Orion does have the effect of bringing El out of her shell and her brutally honest and scathing attitude combined with a substantial amount of power and skill does eventually draw the honest respect of a few students. Gradually El finds strength and support from unlikely allies and she begins to hope she might actually survive graduation.
Graduation Day is the day when the school physically pushes the senior class out the door. The problem is that the lower level where graduation takes place is the weakest point in the school and is highly infested with mals. Graduation is a bloodbath and only those students who have banded together with other powerful students stand a chance of surviving the gauntlet. It has been this way for generations; every attempt to repair the protections and repel the mals has failed many mature and powerful wizards died trying so no one tries anymore. They just hope their children survive. For El and Orion, it seems ridiculous and they don’t see a reason why they couldn’t do the repairs themselves. Unfortunately, the graduating seniors don’t see it as a boon; they have their own reasons for keeping the status quo. And there’s another problem, as well, there hasn’t been this many surviving students in generations and the school isn’t prepared to feed and supply this many. Many are going hungry. Even El’s and Orion’s friends and allies aren’t convinced that it’s a good idea; and some of them are sure to die in the effort.
There is much about the school environment that is a mystery to the reader; simply because El has no reason to describe it such as the lack of any adult supervisor or teacher. Food just appears, supplies just appear, assignments are given. There are rules to follow but no explanation why. And from a teenager’s point of view that’s just the way things are. No reason to spend effort wondering why. Their lives are taken up with mere daily survival, completing the assignments the school gives them, and making alliances that might allow them to live within the safety and comfort of an enclave once they graduate.
But El’s history and her own personal demons are still her weakness and no one weak ever leaves the Scholomance alive.
Ms. Novik does a very credible job giving voice to a young teenager; at least, I think she does. I’m pretty far removed from teenagers, myself. But her voice captured my interest, I read this book in one sitting. Her dialogue was so real it was easy to visualize. And she did a great job describing El, giving us just enough to keep us wondering about more. Just as the inner musings of a teenager would focus more on the daily mundane tasks, and then in the dark of the night, we’d know more of her hopes and dreams. Remembering the awful or uncomfortable things of her childhood just wouldn’t be something El would do, so when she did slip in something revealing, it went a long way to understanding the girl better. It may have been a somewhat predictable plot in many ways but I sure enjoyed the ride and the wild imagination that produced the Scholomance. ~~ Catherine Book
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