I enjoyed Naomi Novak's standalone novels, 'Uprooted' and 'Spinning Silver' but spent a while dithering over 'A Deadly Education' as the premise of teenagers trying to survive in a magical school didn't really appeal to me. Until this week when I sort of was in the mood for something in the fantasy line from a reliable author.
I'm glad I read it, I really enjoyed it, and as they appear in paperback (book 2 in the series, 'The Last Graduate' is out in hardback at the moment, paperback in May, book 3 to follow) I'll read the rest. My only real quibble is that they're sold along with the science fiction and fantasy novels, and like 'Uprooted' and 'Spinning Silver', I really think they belong in the young adult section. Maybe that's seen as limiting, but in a book where all the protagonists are 16/17, it seems a better fit.
Aside from, or even including the categorization, this has everything I've come to expect from Novik. She's a brilliant worldbuilder, especially when it comes to the logic behind how magic works. The main character is El, a powerful witch with an affinity for dark magic. The school, which is not a benign place, is trying its level best to turn her into a mass murderer, El is resisting, however tempting it is to wipe everyone out.
There are no teachers, no contact with the outside world, and no escape - the reason children end up in the school is that they're even more vulnerable outside of it, and if they survive their education they have a chance to form alliances, and possibly even join an enclave of powerful wizards where they'll be protected and privileged.
It's not looking good for El, she has the power, but nobody likes her so she's a definite outcast until she meets Orian Lake. Probably as powerful in his own way he's the golden boy hero who is throwing the school ecosystem out of whack - he's rescued so many people that the monsters that infest it are getting exceptionally hungry.
As he and El get closer she begins to make a couple of other friends and change her mind about what she wants from her future - the iniquities of the enclave system become more grating to her. Orian, who has as bleak a time as a chosen one as El does being an unchosen one also begins to question more about a social order he's never had any reason to think about before. Altogether it's an excellent breakdown of how privilege works and for whom.
El's narrative is a fun place to be as well, everything is shown from her point of view in something that reads like a cross between a diary and a conversation with the reader. She's sarcastic, often funny, self-absorbed (necessary for survival) and an all-round decent portrait of a teenager - almost an adult, still vulnerable. I want to know what happens to her next, see how she develops, and see what happens to he friends she's making - and what more is there to ask from a story?