The Scholomance is not your typical school. And not just because it’s a school for magic. No, this school is not your average school because it will straight up try to kill you. Students have to stay alert constantly and travel in packs everywhere lest one of the evil creatures, or malefecaria, who live in the school try to kill them. Galadriel, or El, is a student at the Scholomance determined to survive all the way through graduation and do so on her own terms. She didn’t start the school year already privileged to have a posse or lots of resources, and she refuses to learn how to do magic except in the strictest possible terms: generating her own power, or mana, and not using any from the world around her. It’s a difficult path to choose, but since her affinity is for destruction and death, it’s for the best. Throughout the year, El forges friendships and allegiances with her classmates which just may be what she needs to survive.
Upon first pass, this book does a really great job of explore privilege and money and power. Those with money and resources don’t have to worry so much about surviving all four years. They have the connections they made with each other before school started, gadgets and mana from mommy and daddy on the outside, and training they receive even prior to starting school. But what about those students who don’t have magical parents? Who are just whisked away to this school without any preparation? What does this say about the overall caste system of this magical world? It’s a very interesting premise (though it all is revealed through incredibly lengthy inner monologues from El which are just basically world-building info dumps)… but then you look a little deeper.
Really the only characters that get any semblance of characterization are the protagonist and her quasi-love interest, Orion. Everyone else, though diverse in racial, ethnic, and language background, get reduced to the “Mandarin speakers” or the “Hindi speakers”. It all seems very superficial. The protagonist, El, is half-Indian but there is very little expansion on this side of the character even though we get quite a bit of information about her Welsh heritage.
Also, in what is probably the most egregious misstep in the entire book, Novik invented an evil creature called a lockleech which burrows into “large clumps of hair” and lays eggs which then hatch and burrow into the scalp, and she specially calls dreadlocks “not a great idea.” It’s bad. I mean, Novik could have inventend anything and yet chose an evil bug that infests dreadlocks. Yikes.
All together, this is a phenomenal idea that is just absolutely wasted.