Naomi Novik’s 2020 A Deadly Education is the first volume in her Scholomance series.
Antisocial Galadriel “El” Higgins has survived her time in the combination school/death trap of Scholomance; this despite her manifest lack of social connections or powerful allies. A meet-cute in the form of an unrequested rescue by the Scholomance’s self-appointed hero Orion Lake upends her sullen life.
The ability to gather mana and cast magic has the unfortunate side-effect of attracting ravenous swarms of malefecaria, mana-eating monsters. Adult mages, at least the privileged ones, huddle in well-protected enclaves. The best solution the mages have arrived at for their children, however, is to dispatch them to the Scholomance, where if the children are lucky and cunning, they will be among the minority who survive the school’s wandering monsters, homicidal students, and self-inflicted magical catastrophes.
Like all of the students at the school, El has an affinity for a particular form of magic. She has a talent for apocalypse-level destructive spells so profound that her birth was attended by dire prophecies. Not wanting to be voted the school’s Most Likely to Become the Big Bad in an Upcoming Series of Best-Selling Children’s Fiction, El has been very careful to keep her particular specialty a closely held secret. This is one reason she shuns most other students; the other reason is that she dislikes most other people.
Rescuing El earns Orion a personal dose of El’s abrasive rudeness, something to which he is as immune as he is to the fangs and eldritch claws of malefecaria. To the rest of the school, Orion’s tolerance for pariah El can have only one explanation: Orion has inexplicably fallen in love with El. El is displeased to be romantically connected with Orion … but she’s not above exploiting the situation for her own ends.
However, Orion’s very existence comes with a large price tag. An excessive number of students have avoided being consumed by monsters. Therefore, the current population of starving monsters is soaring. This is a matter of great concern to the students about to graduate, as the vestibule connecting the school’s pocket universe swarms with malefecaria. In regular times, half the graduating class dies facing this final pass/fail exam. How many will survive half-starved malefecaria?
There’s an easy solution. Simply poke holes in the school defenses, let the malefecaria swarm in and slake their appetites on the lower classes. With any luck, the monsters will be too full to turn on the upper-class students. It’s an ideal solution, except of course from the perspective of designated appetizers like El and Orion.
To appropriate something Bruce Sterling said about another author, every reader should sample A Deadly Education to see what exactly they dislike about it. Mahvesh Murad of Tor.com, for example, was unimpressed by Novik’s attempts at diversity, presenting the reader with a character who is half Indian but for reasons entirely within the author’s control, has no connection to her father’s family or culture. Other readers were put off by the author’s use of a particularly nasty stereotype about black people’s hair, a passage which, depending on which edition you read, may have been removed by the time you read this.
My main sticking point was that the entire arrangement is a contrivance to subject children to years of terror and danger, whose reward should they survive it is be firmly entrenched in a system designed to perpetuate more terror and danger. I have a peculiar aversion to contrived scenarios aimed at providing readers or viewer entertainment in the form of children being brutalized and killed, a peculiarity I discovered immediately after watching a student get a knife to the brain in the film Battle Royale.
I would love to be able to say “no parent would subject their own kids to this” … but England exists. There are school systems whose purpose appears to be to supply the world with generation after generation of entitled sociopaths and school systems closer to home whose main purpose was to exterminate its charges. The combination of the two is unusual but probably cannot be ruled out. Still, I don’t want to read about fictional versions of such schools. At least I can avoid future volumes.