I really wanted to love this but ended this more meh. It’s definitely trying to channel later instalment Harry Potter, but with more diversity and less heartwarming-ness.
Our protagonist is El, short for Galadriel, who is in her next to last year school at the Scholomance, an international wizard high school. Unlike Hogwarts, the Scholomance is self- taught (no Dumbledores or Snapes) and brimming with danger day to day, mostly in the form of magical monsters (Mals, short for maleficaria). In this world, the surges of new magic that appear during adolescence make teenagers delectable snacks for Mals, so while still dangerous the isolated Scholomance is less dangerous than going through puberty in the regular world.
El comes into the Scholomance as a loner, not part of an established magical family, so she is trying to make friends/ alliances with other students that will let her survive graduation. (Graduation is a literal life and death fight through a Mal-infested lower floor of the Scholomance after which the survivors get to re-enter the rest of the world). In the meantime, she’s trying to be a good wizard, and avoiding her innate destructive tendencies (she was prophesied to be a world destroyer).
Whew. There is so much additional world building and background that Novak does here, which makes sense as this is the first novel in a trilogy. I liked a lot of the world she’s created, with the caveat of just how bleak it is- everything here is out to kill all the students, including sometimes other students. Kids die off from almost the beginning and it’s treated nonchalantly, which is disturbing in adolescent fantasy. My biggest complaint was just how anxiety inducing the constant stress felt- Harry Potter had moments of danger to punctuate what otherwise felt like a safe and cozy but eccentric old castle. This had evil creatures trying to kill the students every moment of every day (and occasionally succeeding).
Character-wise, I also thought Novik did a good job- El is prickly but understandably so, her nemesis/saviour, Orion Lake, is an oblivious do-gooder trying to find some real friends, her small clique of friends are all talented but cautious (seems fair in a place that is trying to kill you all the time). There are a lot of scathing Goodreads reviews that allege Novik is treating non-white cultures and people unfairly. I didn’t get that, but I’m also in a privileged position, so I’m not sure I get to make the call. I will say that she was trying, and after the very white world of Harry Potter, its a step in the right direction.