Galadriel, known as El, is 16 and a junior in the Scholomance for sorcerers, a sentient boarding school sort of like a very dark version of Hogwarts. Every day in the school the students – more than 4,000 of them – face an obstacle course full of monsters (“maleficaria” or “mals”) trying to kill and eat them. “Graduation” is the final big test, when, in order to get out of the school, they have to run through a gauntlet of all the hungry mals lying in wait; less than a quarter of the class is ever expected to survive. El thinks this isn’t so bad; she calculates that if you’re an indie kid like she is (not part of an enclave of other wizards), and you don’t get into the Scholomance, your odds of making it to the far side of puberty are one in twenty. Thus, “one in four is plenty decent odds compared to that.”
Students try to make alliances to help protect one another, so everything becomes transactional – e.g., I will pry a tray of food away from grasping mals for you in the cafeteria if you get them away from a place to sit at a table.
For El it is different, however. She has never had friends, and can’t understand why no one likes her until one classmate told her, “You feel like it’s going to rain.”
El’s mum is Gwen Higgins, the renowned beneficent shaman, so she doesn’t tell anyone at school; they would just be “shocked that the great spiritual healer had produced creepy proto-maleficer me . . . “ She allowed, “Anyone who wanted to be friends with Gwen Higgin’s daughter very much didn’t want to be friends with me.”
Thus she had to think and plan and strategize how to survive every single meal and class and trip to the bathroom in school, and she was tired of it. She was also tired of all of the others hating her for no reason, nothing she had ever done. She never hurt any of them; on the contrary, she had been working herself to exhaustion just to avoid hurting any of them, although they have no idea just how powerful she is. She observes sardonically:
“Some sorcerers get an affinity for weather magic, or transformation spells, or fantastic combat magics . . . I get an affinity for mass destruction.”
Or as she tells her classmate Orion Lake, “My affinity is laying waste to multitudes, so I haven’t had much opportunity to try the experience.” He thinks she is joking….
Orion has an ability to destroy most of the mals that roam through the school, and has taken it upon himself to keep an eye out for El and rescue her when necessary. Orion liked to hang out with her because she was the only one who didn’t genuflect to him, who treated him like a real person, and was in fact not very nice to him at all. She reasoned:
“I don’t have a very good idea of how people behave with their friends normally, because I’d never had one before, but on the bright side, Orion hadn’t either, so he didn’t know any more than I did. So for lack of a better idea we just went on being rude to each other. . . .”
Orion got an augmentation of power from killing the mals. After he killed one, he saved that new store of power to fire off the next spell. If he was low on power, he could borrow some (“mana”) from his fellow New York enclave members. The New York enclave was the single most powerful enclave in the world, and Orion’s mother was one of the top candidates to be its next leader.
Orion has been saving other students as well, so that less than twenty juniors have died so far this year – the usual rate is a hundred plus – but there is an unexpected side effect. The mals are hungrier than usual . . . .
Discussion: You may wonder, what about the rest of the world, i.e., the world full of “mundanes” (read: muggles). El explained: “Mundanes aren’t exactly invulnerable to mals – but they have one extremely powerful protection; they don’t believe in magic.” Acceptance is necessary for the magic of wizards, who “believe in magic, the ways mundanes believe in cars.” It is there; you just have to see and acknowledge it. This is a common trope in fantasy, and I love it; it is the perfect explanation for how all this magic can be going on in the world but nobody seems to know about it.
The character of El is terrific; she is hurt and angry from a lifetime full of rejection, and her awakening to friendship in this book is a joy to behold. The other female characters in the book are nuanced and interesting, and they grow in character as well as the year – and the story – progresses.
If it occurs to you that the idea of a high school full of monsters out to get you, with particularly tough gauntlets to run in the cafeteria, by the lockers, and in the rest rooms, may be metaphorical, I had that thought myself. Looked at either way, it’s a very clever and entertaining story.
Naomi Novik is such an exceptional author. I have read almost all of her books, and each book or series of books is as different from the others as you can imagine, but equally wonderful. Moreover, all have impressed me with their fantastic flights of imagination and creative world-building.
Evaluation: This is book one of a duology, and it ends on an unexpected note that will have you champing at the bit for the next installment.
Published in the U.S. by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2020