YOUNG ADULT FICTION
A Deadly Education
By Naomi Novik
Del Rey/ Paperback/ 323 pages/ $29.96/ Available at Kinokuniya's website.
In the Scholomance, a magical academy that melds the ruthlessness of The Hunger Games with the lacklustre health and safety standards of Harry Potter's Hogwarts, you graduate or literally die trying.
American author Naomi Novik made her name with the historical fantasy series Temeraire, which reimagined Napoleonic warfare with dragons.
A Deadly Education, the first in a trilogy, does not reach the heights of her magnificent 2016 novel Uprooted, though it manages to be a mordaciously relatable satire of the academic rat race.
Galadriel, El for short, is in her penultimate year at the Scholomance, where students spend their teenage years boning up on spells, backstabbing one another and fending off maleficaria, a nightmarish array of monsters - soul-suckers, blood-clangers, maw-mouths and more - keen on devouring young magic users.
Graduation involves dumping the senior cohort in a hall full of hungry maleficaria and leaving them to fight their way out. Survivors get a shot at joining elite enclaves, but most do not make it.
El's Welsh mother was pregnant with her when her Indian father sacrificed himself to get mother and child out of the Scholomance.
Her own odds are not good. She has highly destructive powers she cannot control and is also a misanthropic loner. When all the cool kids are forming cliques to survive graduation, even eating in the cafeteria alone is a death wish.
El could go full dark sorceress and massacre her way out, but she wants to graduate cleanly. Though she may just kill Orion Lake, the school's golden boy, who has an annoying tendency to save her life.
Novik, typically an excellent world-builder, has constructed a delightfully complex system of magic, though much of this has to be conveyed via exposition dumps.
The student body, readers are often reminded, is a very international one, which may read like checkbox diversity but is a refreshing change from the Eurocentrism of much magical campus fiction.
Multilingualism is an asset - Mandarin and English are the main languages of instruction and the more languages you know, the more spells you can access.
Beneath all the action runs a critique of how even meritocratic education systems are winnowed by privilege. Enclave kids like Orion come in loaded with reserves of power, while students without connections, like El, are brought in chiefly as maleficaria fodder.
El is a caustic narrator, zigzagging between dark humour and existential despair. A Deadly Education may suffer from growing pains, but I would relish watching its heroine snark her way through a few more semesters.
If you like this, read: The Finishing School quartet by Gail Carriger, beginning with Etiquette And Espionage (Little, Brown, 2013, $17.39, available at bit.ly/EtiEsp_GC). Tomboyish Sophronia enrols in Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, a steampunk school of manners where she will learn to finish everything, including other people.