A Deadly Education
by Naomi Novik
This was a delightful book, and the problem with delightful books is they’re hard to critique. Instead of making mental notes, I find myself enjoying the story. As a reader, this is great; it’s exactly what I want out of a book. As a writer looking to learn from other people’s writing, this is kind of the worst type of book to read. I’m left with ‘wow, that was a good book’ and not with lessons I can apply to my own craft.
First, of course, is why I bought the book in the first place. Naomi Novik isn’t an author I’ve read before, though I’ve been aware of her for a while now. She’s shown up in recommendation engines, but always the premise of her books hasn’t been strong enough for me to purchase them. The one I see most frequently, Spinning Silver, is a retelling of Rumplestiltskin. It’s highly recommended with lots of good reviews and I just haven’t wanted to read a retelling of an old story, so I didn’t. A Deadly Education, though, was something new, and this time when I came across the recommendation, I picked it up.
The biggest thing that comes to mind is the author’s tone. The story is written in the first person, and the tone of the protagonist is unique, witty, engaging and, perhaps most importantly, unreliable. This isn’t a first person account of what happened, it’s a first person account of what the protagonist thinks happened.
I personally think first person perspectives should be unreliable; they’re a perspective, after all. In practice, though, I’ve found most authors don’t do this, and I can understand why. It’s hard. As an author, you know what happened because you made it up. But then you have to write it in a way that is not only a valid interpretation of the event, but is also one that aligns with the character’s personality. Worse, if you’re main character can misinterpret the event, so can everyone else; and they should if you want the story to feel real. You’re basically writing multiple stories at once. Worse, you’ve gotta keep them consistent. If a character is prone to a certain type of misunderstanding, the next time an event of that type happens, they need to misunderstand it or the character will feel fake to the reader. Keeping all that in your head as you write is hard. Most authors just tell you what happened and use the first person to go a little deeper into their head.
More impressively, Novik does this in a way you don’t realize at first. I was a good way through the book before I realized the narrator was unreliable, that her version of events didn’t always align with what other people said or thought. Once I realized what was happening, though, my understanding and empathy for the character deepened considerably. I would say Novik’s greatest strength as a writer is her ability to do this.
The rest of it was good. The world itself was very small and constrained, but well fleshed out. They’re stuck in a school that exists in a pocket dimension, cut off from the world until graduation. The rest of the world is experienced through conversation or first-person explanations of the protagonist’s past. I’m not sure if Novik intends to take this series out of the school (the next book is senior year), but if so, she’s sketched out enough detail to make it interesting.
The magic system is messy and, I think, intended less as a system and more to evoke a kind of Harry Potter-ish mystery. I think it does a reasonable job at this. In particular, I liked the ‘malicious’ aspect, where taking magic from another creature yields power, but also corrupts. It provides some excellent plot mechanics, tension, etc. The good aspect of magic, though, was a little weird. The rest of it, though, will need to be explained in the “what didn’t work” section.
The plot mostly revolves around the teenage drama of fitting in, with a bit of the apocalyptic thrown in for ramifications. Teenage drama can easily turn me off, especially when it’s done wrong 1, but in this case I really enjoyed it. For one, she starts out with the stereotypical roles (even the main character is basically anti-social goth), but then immediately starts tearing them down. In the process, we get to know the real people behind those facades. The rest of the actual plot was somewhat predictable but still enjoyable. I did expect a kind of big-reveal which didn’t happen, though in retrospect I think that was the better choice.
What didn’t work
The author’s greatest strength is, in this case I think, her greatest weakness. She’s very good at getting in her character’s head. At the same time, I think she spends far too much time in her character’s head, especially as a mean to relay information to the user. Vast swaths of the book are taken up with the character explaining their past to the reader. I can accept this at the start of a book if it’s necessary to setup a premise to the plot, but I start to feel the author is just being lazy once it continues too far. There are other ways to expose the past to the reader: dialog, flashbacks, user’s actions, etc. I think there’s a lot of missed opportunities by having the character tell instead of showing the past.
In a similar vein, too many of the character’s actions are over explained to the reader. I don’t need to know why a character does every little thing. As long as it’s consistent, I’m smart enough to figure out their motivation and it helps me invest in the character. Worse, all that exposition gets in the way of the plot, which can be frustrating when you just want to know what happens next. It practically invites the reader to skim.
The magic system, while interesting, was also a bit random. As I mentioned, the malicious aspect was well done, but the good side, the mana, is a little weird and inconsistent. Mana is generated by living beings doing things. So we often find our characters doing push ups to generate mana… or crocheting, apparently, because it’s creative? I’m unsure. Why then doesn’t writing create mana, or studying, or why don’t people do laps? None of that is explained, and in a book that really wants to explain everything, it comes across as an omission. I hope the next book goes deeper into the system.
With well written, relatable characters struggling in an interesting setting, the book deserves the praise it’s received. While I found some things to gripe at, especially the amount of exposition, I also recognize a bit of that comes down to preference.
All said, though, if you’re looking for a interesting Harry-Potterish-like-but-not-really world with some teenage drama, a well written fitting-in story, and some excellent character development, this book is probably for you. As for me, I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series when it comes out.
Wrong means too much: he said she said, filling roles with stereotypes, wish fulfilment, idealizing scenarios, etc. It’s usually pretty easy to tell when the author has painted over their past with a sheen of nostalgia. ↩