El (short for Galadriel) is a trying-to-be-good wizard whose powers seem much more designed to go very big and very bad: there’s even a prophecy about her. She’s a pupil at the Scholomance, in her junior year, desperately trying to stay alive through the unusual challenges being a wizard entails, and gain sufficient alliances with her fellow pupils that she’ll (a) be able to graduate (which means getting out alive from the Scholomance), and (b) get a place in a magical enclave, and not have to be a lone wizard living in a yurt on a commune in Wales, like her mother’s done for almost as long as El’s been alive. Deadly magical creatures – maleficaria – are irresistibly attracted to young wizards, enough to crawl or ooze through gaps in wards in the school’s building, and the senior class isn’t too desperate to assist them in knocking off some of the younger kids in order to better their own chances of graduating.
Novik dumps us straight into the action, introducing us to El’s sardonic narrative, by her reaction to fellow-pupil Orion Lake (one of the lucky kids from New York enclave) who saves her life from a soul-eater:
I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life. I hadn’t really cared much about him before then one way or another, but I had limits.
There’s quite a lot of info-dumping in this book, since El is explaining to us this weird magical world she lives in, but it’s all entertaining, and logical, in its illogical way: I love how Novik explains how magic works and why in this setting (it seems a lot better constructed than the magical world of Harry Potter, for example). I liked El’s attempts at tentative alliances with other, similarly independent wizards – like artificer Aadhya, and novice maleficer Liu – and her combative friendship with the aforementioned Orion. It is quite violent, and most of the kids are pretty single-mindedly selfish about doing what they can to survive (some to greater and others to lesser extents), and some of the more horrible maleficaria are really horrible, although Novik doesn’t linger on character deaths.
Events rattle on at a breakneck pace, El learns things about herself, and others – and comes to understand that the thing she’d thought she’d wanted most of all isn’t necessarily true any more. All the characters are varying shades of grey, and I liked that there wasn’t a ‘big bad’ – a horde of hungry creatures is quite sufficient motivation to band together. I enjoyed this a whole lot, and will be eagerly beginning the next book in the trilogy, The Last Graduate, very shortly. I’d only read Uprooted, which I’d really enjoyed, of Novik’s previous novels, but will definitely seek out more of her stuff in the future.