A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, Romanian folklore, and some thoughts about perfectionism

Keeping in line with my inadvertent summer theme of fantasy novels, I recently turned the last page on A Deadly Education, the first book in Naomi Novik’s projected Scholomance trilogy. This has been by far my favourite Naomi Novik book—for me, neither Uprooted nor Spinning Silver lived up to their hype. But this one I really loved!

The novel is told in the voice of El, whose full name is Galadriel (however, you’d never mistake her for her serene and star-shiny eponym). El is one of hundreds of magically gifted teenagers who are students in the Scholomance—a terrifying boarding school literally floating in a void, and filled to the brim with maleficaria, or “mals” as the students call them, which are monsters of every size and description. Students at the Scholomance are balancing a precarious workload—they have to do their schoolwork, AND they have to not get killed. Did you ever feel like your high school was trying to kill you? Yeah, this one really is.

If the Scholomance sounds familiar, it might be because you have run across it before. Novik drew her inspiration from a fascinating part of Romanian folklore, one which Bram Stoker referenced in Dracula. According to Wikipedia:

The Scholomance was a fabled school of black magic in Romania, especially in the region of Transylvania; which was run by the Devil, according to folkloric accounts. The school enrolled about ten students to become the Solomonari [a wizard believed, in Romanian folklore, to ride a dragon and control the weather, causing rain, thunder, or hailstorm]. Courses taught included the speech of animals and magic spells. One of the graduates was chosen by the Devil to be the Weathermaker and tasked with riding a dragon to control the weather.

The school lay underground, and the students remained unexposed to sunlight for the seven-year duration of their study.”

Wikipedia

According to Novik, she read about the Scholomance at the age of 10, and has been churning it around in her mind ever since. On her website, she says:

Ever since I first read about this mysterious place in my middle-school library, I’ve been imagining its story. Who are the students in its classrooms and why would they or their parents accept the price the school exacts?”

Naomi Novik

The Scholomance trilogy is Novik’s imagining of the answers to these questions, and more. The book does a great job of evoking the horror of living in a place where you are constantly looking over your shoulder, where every room you enter must be thoroughly checked for danger, where food is only sometimes safe to eat, and showering is a luxury because it’s unsafe to go to the bathrooms alone. El spends most of the book constantly in peril, and very, very dirty.

Alongside this ongoing physical danger, there is a significant amount of political manoeuvring going on at all times. The magical world is embedded in and intertwined with the mundane world, but pockets outside of mundane reality exist, created by enclaves of powerful wizards. The enclavers, as El calls them, have a massive advantage over everyone else, due to their ability to power-share and keep one another safe. A huge part of life in the Scholomance is jockeying for position, and trying to secure a seat in an enclave post-graduation. That is, assuming you get out alive.

In my last post I talked a little bit about the problems with metaphorizing real-life injustices and prejudices, and so I feel like I have to address Novik’s parallels here. In A Deadly Education, I actually really liked the way that the enclaves were presented as a class-based system that unfairly privileges a few at the expense of the many. It’s true that the magical socio-political system is much more based on enclaves and magical affinity than it is on race or economic class, however I think the book does a pretty good job of pulling that all apart.

In this world, magic is connected to language (I could write an entire other essay about the magical system in this book), and so the more languages that one knows or has access to, the more powerful one is. This in itself is a huge incentive for the characters to dispense with cultural prejudices. The novel never tries to tell us that wizards are more tolerant of differences, or less inclined to prejudice. Rather, in the world that Novik has created, survival trumps everything else, and so the power structures have shifted sideways from where they lay in the mundane world—but they function in very much the same way. As we get deeper into the story, we see more and more nuanced details about the exploitation of those not in enclaves, about the desperation to join one, about the privileged being confronted with uncomfortable truths, and either choosing to change and grow—or not.

Now seems like a good time to talk about some of the criticisms that have been raised in response to this book. There have been readers who found the novel racist for a variety of reasons, including: El, who is a biracial character, rarely showers; students and enclaves are often identified solely by the languages they speak (i.e. “Mandarin-speakers; Arabic-speakers,” etc.); El’s disconnection from and rejection by her Indian family; and a problematic passage about “dreadlocks” that referenced their tendency to become infested with a specific type of mal.

I could give my thoughts on all of those things, however, other writers have already addressed them in very articulate ways, which align with my thoughts on these matters. In particular, A Naga of the Nusantara wrote a detailed post called “The Intersectionality of Magical Academia: A Review of Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education“; and Nameera Tanjeem of The Literary Invertebrate wrote a thoughtful response for Book Riot, “A Response to Claims of Racism in Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education.” I urge you to go and read these pieces, and decide for yourself where you stand on these matters.

I will say, that in my opinion, Naomi Novik’s response to these criticisms was spot on. She didn’t throw a Margaret-Atwood-style hissy fit and declare, Fine then, I just won’t try anymore. She very graciously apologized, removed an unequivocally problematic part of the book (the passage about the locs), and specifically outlined how she is going to do better in the future. You can read her full apology here.

To be clear: I am not invalidating anyone’s readings, nor any harm that may have been experienced by readers. (Neither is Naomi Novik.) All we can do is try our best, listen to criticism, learn, and do better, and I think that Novik is modelling this admirably. It calls to mind a workshop that I recently took from Nahanee Creative, which is an organization teaching decolonizing practices. One of the facilitators, Ta7talíya Paisley Eva Nahanee, made the point that “perfectionism is a colonial concept.” She emphasized the importance of putting yourself out there, even if you get it wrong at first (or second, or third).

Naomi Novik made the choice to include a diverse cast of characters in her book. She requested that her publisher employ a sensitivity reader for the manuscript. She still got things wrong. But, importantly, she listened, she apologized, and she responded. And I have every confidence that next time, she will do better. Maybe she won’t get it perfect—but she’ll probably learn from that too. As a reader (and as a human), I am here for that.

So, if you read the criticisms and the responses, and decide that you do indeed want to read A Deadly Education, I can promise you a complex world both unsettling and fun, a terrifically snarky protagonist, an anti-romance romance (you’ll have to read it to see what I mean by that!), an action-packed plot, and a really lovely arc celebrating true friendship as opposed to opportunistic alliances. Not to mention the chance to engage with some thought-provoking questions about race and class representation in literature, and the opportunity to become a better reader.

‘You know, it’s almost impressive,’ he said after a moment, sounding less wobbly. ‘You’re nearly dead and you’re still the rudest person I’ve ever met. You’re welcome again, by the way.’
‘Given that you’re at least half responsible for this situation, I refuse to thank you,’ I said.”

Chapter 4, “Things That Go Bump in the Night”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s