Imagine a high school that has zero teachers or staff, just students trying to learn and advance. When you show up the first day of freshman year you don’t leave until graduation day senior year. All you have with you is what you had in your pockets or even in your mouth — No suitcases or trunks.
It’s a school of magic, but not like Hogwarts or Watford.
And that school is actively trying to kill you.
This is the world that our “heroine,” El (that’s short for Galadriel, naturally) live in. She goes to the Scholomance*, a school of magic on another plane of existence entirely, and all she wants is to survive, and get back to her mother in rural Wales. The odds are against her – by her junior year, El hasn’t formed any alliances, and doesn’t have anyone to watch her back during “graduation.”
Oh, and graduation? No speeches and diplomas. You simply fight for your life against the monsters and creatures that have been waiting all year long to eat you. If you get from one end of the graduation hall to the other, and can get through the portal door without being eaten, you graduate.
Without alliances (both inside the school and back at home), you are likely to die before the end of senior year. There are hungry monsters (or mals, in these books) in the bathrooms, in the food lines in the cafeteria, even in your mattress or pillow.
El works alone, building up the magical energy (or mana) that she needs for spells by doing sit ups and crocheting in her spare time. She could take the easy route and steal energy (or malia) from others, as she is apparently the most gifted student of her age (and maybe ever?), but she is afraid of how that power would change her.
And halfway through her junior year, El finds herself sort-of-dating Orion, the greatest mal slayer she has ever seen. Orion hails from the most powerful enclave of wizards in the world – New York City – and he is their greatest weapon. He builds up so much mana by slaying the mals around him (or that he hunts for), that his entire enclave can survive off of him, sharing his mana with cool little magic fitbits (or something like that…worn on the wrist but not really a watch?). Orion rushes around the school saving other kids from the monsters hiding in the shadows and El really, really resents him for it. Nobody wastes their own mana saving someone else. You need to look out for yourself.
El slowly makes some friends, who realize an alliance with her is a huge asset. Her spell casting is like nothing any of them have seen before, and if they stick with her, their chances for graduating are that much higher.
The first book, A Deadly Education, is the story of El’s junior year, the beginning of her relationship with Orion, and the creation of her alliance with her new friends. The second book, The Last Graduate, is all about senior year, and how El and her friends plan to graduate.
I freaking adored these books.
They were funny and scary and slightly unhinged. I could not put them down. At the end of the first book, I only had to wait a few days before the second, preordered one, came in the mail. At the end of the second, I said “WHAT?” out loud and then realized it will be months, if not years, before the third book comes out, and that was not a great feeling.
I loved that Novik explained some things, but didn’t explain everything about this world. The first page just dumped us straight into the story, with very little introduction. Figure it out on your own, reader.
I can’t wait for the third book, The Golden Enclaves.
*I was today years old when I learned that the term Scholomance is an actual term from folklore. From Wikipedia:
The Scholomance[a] was a fabled school of black magic in Romania, especially in the region of Transylvania. It was run by the Devil according to folkloric accounts. The school enrolled about ten students to become the Solomonari. 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. The dragon was kept submerged in a mountaintop lake, south of Sibiu, according to some accounts.