A Deadly Education follows a young sorceress, Galadriel, struggling to survive inside the Scholomance, a school floating outside our reality in a dark void. The school is home to thousands of mals that want nothing more than to tear apart the school's young, squishy magicians, and after the fabled graduation that usually kills about half of the already picked-off graduating class, barely a quarter of students make it. Galadriel, known as El, has to dodge these murderous mals, classmates turned dark, treacherous beasts in the vents, punishing curriculum, her own inclination towards dark magic, and a suspiciously helpful and heroic classmate if she hopes to graduate junior year.
Like all Harry Potter obsessed children, I've read my fair share of the magic school knockoffs that popped up to rake in our sweet, sweet income after the former's stunning success. I've read about fun schools, dark schools, elf schools, schools with just a little magic, schools with way too much magic, complicated schools, normal schools with some sparkle, and everything in between. While these have all varied in quality, none have come close to replicating the same unique nature of the Harry Potter franchise, likely in large part to their resemblance, as readers see "magic school" and can only think of it as a less impressive Hogwarts. This book stands out heavily from the rest, and is one of the first one of these I've read and genuinely thought "Hey, maybe this isn't a blatant attempt to capitalize on my generation's Harry Potter obsession." Instead of capitalizing on the fun shenanigans and beautiful imagery of magic as the Harry Potter books, and most subsequent knockoffs, this book is immediately sobering. Instead of trying to transport the reader to a world of magic beings and sparkling wands, the book opens with a near death experience of the main character, then proceeds to hammer in the normality of the situation. It introduces a strict barter system, the mundaneness of horrible deaths, the need for constant vigilance, and the constant threat of a horrible demise looming over every characters head in El's matter-of-fact, blunt voice. There's no funerals or scandals when someone dies, only remembering where there body is to watch out for the mals that will devour it. Every minute of these teenagers' lives is calculating the odds and risks to get them out alive, fully knowing that most of those with them won't make it out. And its a really, really fun read.
The way the authors shows the creative and all-encompassing ways these characters keep themselves safe from monsters that are literally everywhere makes every moment and character decision fascinating. Just getting a meal involves putting wards on tables, finding sun lamps to sit under, making sure your food isn't poisoned, avoiding the mals hiding in or around the food, and getting a spot far enough from the doors to make sure you aren't first in line if something large and hungry charges in. The amount of thought and detail and danger the author weaves into her world is truly astounding, and gives it that special flavor that finally isn't "Harry Potter but a little to the left." The tone and voice of the book is completely distinct from anything I've ever read. Lots of books try to sell that "we're constantly in danger" bit, but it rarely works since the main cast has plot armor and all the side characters that die get appropriate sadness and deep reflections on the fragility of life from the main characters. When someone dies in this book, they're dead, and that's it, and the characters have to move on or their distraction will get them dead too. It's like a war story set inside a high school, with children talking about rationing empathy and leaving their friends corpses on tables like its just a part of life. And its sad, sure, but the bluntness of it all makes it such a no-nonsense, tight narrative that you can't really grudge it that.
It helps that the narrator, El, is a very logical person, who views deaths as inconvenient but inevitable while still seeming to be a generally kind person. El herself is also very well fleshed out, clearly given her own distinct motivations and temperament. She's hardworking and resourceful, while also being bitingly sarcastic. She has flaws and problems, but watching her work through these throughout the story is immensely satisfying. Her friends and foils get the same treatment. While they're definitely not as well explored as El, they're all characters in their own right, who are also fun to watch survive. And we're all aware of the fact that it would be very easy and in character with the world for them to die, making the stakes gripping and giving the book a quality that makes it almost impossible to put down. There's also this really great main side character who acts like the classic YA protagonist with a ton of idealism and heroism and genuine kindness, and El just thinks he's a huge idiot for some really good reasons that are kind of a reflection on the usual idea of the "hero" as a whole, and their dynamic is super fun!
I read this book maybe six months ago, and I'm rereading it now, and I'm thinking of buying it because it is just that good! It has a distinct tone and a unique world that is explained by a main character we like and fleshed out by a school we can't help but want to know more about. The only real critique I have of this book is the fact that its a bit heavy on exposition, especially in the beginning, but the world is so strange and intense that I was fine learning about it, no matter how long it dragged on. All in all, this book is amazing, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants salty and cool heroines, side characters with protagonist flavor, an extremely vivid and dangerous world, some good emotional wringing, and a conclusion that promises so much more!
Reviewer Grade: 11