A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik

This book reads like fanfic grown wild and untamed, the sturdy and feral descendant of stories past. That, in my mind, is a good thing.

I tried to sum up the novel’s concept, as practice for making pitches and loglines, and came up with something like… “what if Harry Potter, but the school is *literally* a death trap full of monsters and there aren’t any adults around to ‘help?’” Add some socioeconomic inequality, teen drama, a pinch of prophecy, and an antisocial and justifiably angry teen girl for a narrator, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education is like.

I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

I did not, apparently, read the first released edition. Before posting this, I read a little bit of other commentary on A Deadly Education, to doublecheck my own impressions, and found some critiques of what seemed like racist content that I had entirely missed. It turns out that I wasn’t oblivious (this time): Naomi Novik acknowledged those critiques after receiving them last fall, said the language was unintentional, undesired, and unnecessary, and removed it from later versions of the text (including the version I read).

Honestly, the only thing that seemed off to me was the lack of more queer folks. As someone who works with kids and teens, I’m kind of surprised that there was so little overt inclusion of characters who weren’t cis and het, even in the background. Yes, it’s easy to read one or two characters as queer, but “plausibly deniable” inclusion just isn’t the same thing. I know that Novik has included queer people in her Temeraire books (only as side characters sadly, but important and beloved ones), and—given the change in context from Napoleonic-era historical fantasy to modern teen fantasy—the general lack seems like an avoidable oversight.

Now, of course, dating and romance necessarily take a back seat to simply surviving in this story. Certainly it could be argued that our protagonist, outcast that she is, is paying more attention to other things than the sexualities and genders of those around her. But she’s also an astute social observer, and I would expect her to pay attention to who was dating whom (or who was crushing on whom) if only for the way that those relationships would change power dynamics in the Scholomance. Surely someone in that hell-pit of a school is openly queer.

That said, the lack of more queer rep was not a dealbreaker for me. I was still stuck in this book, pulled back in repeatedly. I’d open it while my computer turned on, and then keep reading while the machine patiently waited for my password. I’d open it when I sat down for lunch, and lose an afternoon. I’d open it as I lay in bed, and then struggle to put it down and sleep. This book grabbed me, and I want the sequel.

Putting those issues aside, I rather liked the book’s commentary and focus on inequality, and the way that inequality is baked into the setting as a driving force. It’s poignantly, painfully honest—and reminds me in a good way of later themes in the Temeraire series. The resources available to any wizard are a vital concern, and they’re literally life or death for students in the Scholomance. People will do nearly anything to get an edge, or keep one, and that desperation is the lifeblood of this book. I’m so glad that it’s brought to the forefront here.

Yes, I recommend this book. If you wanted more teen wizards, awful and dangerous schools, teenage drama in terrible circumstances, or delightfully and justifiably angry female narrators, this book will make you very happy. Indulge yourself.

Also, if you want another perspective on the book, check out this naga’s thoughts. I used the image at top from that site.

Thoughts on 1/20/2017

This is more of a stump than a full post, but it’s late and I’ve been distracted all day. I’ve been finishing my current draft of Barium Deep, hoping to have it done before the end of January.

I want to submit it.

Hell, I want to change the world. Sometimes, very, very occasionally, I’m confident enough to think that I might have a chance to do that with the stories I share.

But I was set to thinking, earlier, when I spoke with someone about the news that we’d each seen that day. She’d seen news footage cutting back and forth between the inauguration parade and protestors, news about people breaking windows and even (apparently) setting a car on fire in front of the Washington Post offices. I saw a video of police pepper spraying an elderly woman and a disabled man, along with the people who were trying to shield them and move them away from the police.

What are the narratives our news sources are giving us? Why?

And I keep coming back to this: what the fuck were those officers thinking, spraying people who obviously are mobility impaired, spraying the people who are trying to help them move, spraying fucking everyone in that group?

I’ve never worked as a police officer. But I have worked security, dealing with people who didn’t really want to do what I wanted them to do (leave a place, quietly, by following me through a crowded area). I got more cooperation, nearly 100% cooperation, with calm requests and occasional assistance than I ever could have gotten by enforcing, imposing my will on the people I was dealing with. There was never a scene. I was, to the best of my ability, helpful.

My experience is not their experience. The situation I was dealing with was not the situation that they were dealing with. And I can’t help but think that maybe, if they’d treated their situation a little differently, it would have *been* different. Fundamentally different. Those police officers might have had a chance to serve and protect people, instead of punish, harm, and endanger them.

I’m not sure what it takes to make someone think that pepper spraying the mobility impaired is a good way to make them move. I’m not sure what it takes to convince them to do that instead of anything more sane. Fear, maybe. A deep and abiding unawareness of other options. Maybe (I always hope not, and always fear it is so) pleasure in the exercise of power over others. Especially the state-legitimated non-consensual exercise of power over others.

We’ve had enough of that.

On a semi-related note, read Mattias’ piece MLK Is Not Your Black Friend. It’s good. It deserves your attention.

Take care.