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Naomi Novik’s The Scholomance Series

This is kind of a review/commentary because I need to talk about it because it's good.

Think of Harry Potter. Except that the students have to stay in Hogwarts until they graduate, there are no teachers, monsters are slipping through the cracks in the walls to eat the students and the only way to graduate is to fight through the monsters that couldn’t fit through the cracks.

And the main character is supposed to be the next Voldemort.

It’s not completely fair, it’s NOT Harry Potter, not by a long shot, but I suspect it was inspired by it and went a very different direction, a rather dark one ultimately.

The Scholomance series is an urban fantasy comprised of three books: A Deadly Education, The Last Graduate and The Golden Enclaves by Namoi Novik. I stumbled across the first book in a Barnes and Nobel earlier this year and blurb on the back intrigued me as it presented the idea of a character who is supposed to be a great evil, but not really feeling it. And of course there’s a great hero to balance her out, so that interaction sounded quite fun (also the fact that the main character declared she wanted to kill him).

Then I read it, devoured it actually, and immediately went out and hunted down the second book and eventually the third book (it didn’t come out until late September). In fact, I reread all three, in a row, in about 4 days, after I finished the third. I even bought the hard cover of the third book because it was all that was available, and I loath to buy hard cover of any book (usually costs too much). And now I’m writing to encourage others to read it because I found it just that good. So if that’s enough for you to at least get the first book, I’ll put the rest into spoiler tags, but if not, continue on. Each book does stand on it’s own, but it is one continuous story so I would recommend starting with the first book regardless.

The series follows one Galadriel (El) Higgins, a teenage wizard in the mighty Scholomance wizard school, shelter and more or less prison for something like 5000 kids from 14 to 18 years old. Her goal is the same as the rest, survive until Graduation, then survive Graduation and return to the real world. Upside, she’s actually quite powerful and can probably get out pretty easily, the downside is she needs help to power all her amazing spells and has issues making friends and allies.

The story is first person from her perspective and so you get to spend a great deal of time in her head as she tries to do what she needs to survive while also not falling to the temptation of the prophecy that says she will basically destroy the world. And she really, really doesn’t want to do that.

The first book is the last few weeks of her junior year in the Scholomance (no, they don’t get summer off, they stay, for 4 solid years) and sets up a great deal of the rest of the series. Things get going when the local selfless hero of the school, Orion Lake, blasts open her door and kills a mal (generic name for monsters) that had slipped into her room. And she’s annoyed about both of those things, and with him, and the world in general. In fact, her natural resting is state is violently irritated.

The amount of world building in the first chapter alone is magnificent as it doesn’t feel like it is what it’s doing, the exposition. Instead it sounds more like her complaining as she tries to find the one spell that will help clean the stink of dead mal out of her room, and keeps getting spells to burn it, break it or mind control her fellow students to do it for her (she does eventually get one, but has to translate 98 other cleaning charms from Old English first, much to her own irritation).

I won’t dwell on specific events much from here because I really want you to read it, but the way the first chapter builds up the world and El’s personality is how the series will present everything until the very end.

El as a character is probably what drives my love of this story the most. She is constantly on edge about what she can do vs what she should do. Often she tries to pretend she’s cold and calculating, but really she isn’t. Impulsive is pretty often what she actually is, and when she does run into those who are more calculating, they run circles around her, and annoy her. She’s also biting in her commentary, and more than willing to call out bull when it slaps her in the face, which is why it’s hard for her to make friends. But she’s also inspiring for others. The writing really shows how someone like her COULD become a dark queen of evil, and still have willing allies that would follow her as she heads in to conquer hell. It is the major mystery of the series and the final solution is quite satisfying.

It’s a very multi-cultural story. The mixing bowl of the Scholomance encourages it since the only way to get out is to work with others and to learn other languages to get the weapons needed to escape. El is multi racial herself, and most characters don’t fit the old WASP mold you might find elsewhere. It’s also a very female-centric story. Most of the major characters are women, and they drive most of the events. There are a couple solid gay relationships, and at least one implied poly group. No explicate trans characters, but I suspect it just didn’t come up, not that it was excluded. Basically, if you think “woke” is an insult, just don’t bother, this series is not for you at all.

One of the most fascinating things of this story is the names of the characters. Generic names are few and far between. There are a few (Jack, Christopher, Richard) but even often they’re far more odd, like Chole, Magnus, Alfie on the low end and Balthasar and of course Orion (who names their kid that?) on the high end. I can’t speak for the non-english characters, but I suspect that it might be similar. It certainly makes characters unforgettable. So much so a mid book 2 character shows up late in books 3 and I knew I had met him before, even if I didn’t remember exactly (the reread helped BTW).

The themes are many and layered with the issues behind each one explored a bit more than I think anyone else would. For example, the Scholomance is an international institution, and the number of available seats is very limited, so the various enclaves (wizard states basically) are constantly arguing for more for them. And the real divide here is between the older, European derived enclaves (and American) who hold way more seats than they should, and the eastern (Chinese mainly) enclaves that are growing fast and should have more as a result. On top of that, each enclave only has so many openings and the graduates from the Scholmance want to get into those enclaves and while the children from those enclaves can easily get home, those who aren’t have to compete for them.

Yeah, and aside from the last part, the rest is background stuff until the last book. All of this is part of El’s calculations to survive the school, and it’s quite clear she is annoyed by it (and most everything). There’s also a kind analog for pollution, classism, old institutions vs young idealism and even war by the end. All of it just kind of melds together showing that no one of these is more important than the others.

There is also a love story buried under all this, and I suspect its not the most conventional one. The ups and downs of it, and the joy and despair. That runs right into nature vs nurture and the relationships between parents and children. The series really runs the gambit without sitting there and telling you you’re wrong. Throughout it tries to point out that there is logic to what’s going on. People aren’t begin evil only because they’re evil, but because they want to protect their children from the literal monsters that wait to eat them.

I think, if anything, the heart of the story is how a lie can either rot a society from underneath, or become what everyone wants to be true so hard that they become true. Belief is the main driver of the magic of the story (by definition in the book), and the series tries to impose that if you believe hard enough, and try hard enough, it can be true.

I did come to love this story, it’s universe, the characters and the writing as a whole. It never feels slow, and even the longest chapter feels well paced and impactful. There are no dull parts, even when there should be (it’s a school, how interesting can you make studying anyway, oh wait, monsters, right). The best part is the story is complete by the end of the third book. Oh, sure, there COULD be another book, but there doesn’t have to be. It is satisfying how it ends and I’m find that it did, not clawing at the walls for more.

I spend time at bookstores buying random books, looking for something amazing, and I did find it here. I highly recommend it to practically anyone. I doubt it will ever have the impact of, say, Harry Potter, but if you want an alternative that is probably richer and deeper than that ever was or could be without straying too far from the concept, this is probably your best shot. Go read it. I insist.
 

Violentvixen

(She/Her)
I read the first book last year as part of the TT book club, hadn't heard of it before that, here's the thread if you're curious to see what we said about it back then. Personally I didn't like it much, I found the main character obnoxious and never got over it, and the writing style in general wasn't for me. I can't remember specifics now but feel like I vaguely remember a few stereotypes I didn't like? But very glad I read it as so many people clearly love it and now I can be part of the conversation.

However, if they make it into a movie I'd absolutely see it as I think it would work much better for me in that format. Like you said so much cool world building.
 

jpfriction

A most radical pontiff
(He, Him)
I also devoured these three books over the last couple of weeks (well I’m still working on the last one) based on someone (you?) recommending them on discord. Quite the page turners.

I can see El’s constant pessimism and snark getting on one’s nerves. I feel like she’s earned the general right to be a crank and she does get better through the series.

I can’t think of any obviously bad stereotypes but that’s probably my white dude showing.
 
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I can see where there would be frustration with her, but she's also 16 in the first book so hasn't really finished growing up yet. The snark does smooth out as series goes on, the edge goes away and she becomes more well rounded (though she does still have a bite to her which I enjoy). I suppose I found her more interesting as a person with that flaw and it makes her less of a mary sue. She frequently makes assumptions about how others see her and responds as she sees fit, even if that's NOT what's actually happening. Once she starts getting responses other than what she's expecting, she even moves to almost actively sabotage it. Add in the prophecy about her being a soon to be ascendant dark queen and her strict desire NOT to be, it makes her more likely to lash out or even run away from social situations that don't require it.

Which she does start getting over, mostly in the 2nd book. By the end of that, most of the person she is in the first book is gone and she's ready to face the world at large. Those insecurities remain and but she's more generally confident in her decisions and choices, and far less likely to tramp off. Once the finale of the last book comes along, she's finished that growing she needed to do and become a wonderful character that I would love to see more of, but am fine if we don't.

I didn't mention, but I figured out the great mysteries of the book a full chapter before the main character did, and I was pumped when they did. Just enough information to make the leap and it all fell into place.
 
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