The Intersectionality of Magical Academia: A Review of Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education

A Deadly Education (2020) by Naomi Novik

I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life.

I am a fan of Naomi Novik from the very beginning. To date, I’ve read each and every one of her published novels, including all 9 books of her Napoleonic Wars dragon series, Temeraire. So she sits alongside China Miéville and Jo Walton on my bookshelves as authors whose canon of novels I’ve read in entirety. With the notable exceptions of Tongues of Serpents and League of Dragons (book 6 and 9 of Temeraire), I generally enjoyed and was even wowed on occasion by Ms Novik’s body of work, so I was quite excited to hear her announce a new series that’s set in a magical school called the Scholomance. I am somewhat of an enthusiast of this sort of fantasy setting, and have attended many such sorcerous campuses (i.e. Roke, Hogwarts, the University Kvothe attended, Brakebills, Osthorne) in my readings.

Scholomance has a deep footprint in pop culture, and had appeared in many works from folklore to Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the World of Warcraft. In Ms Novik’s A Deadly Education, the Scholomance is a school where wizard children are sent to study the magical arts and um, to get murdered. Reading the Harry Potter books as an adult, one realises that Lucius Malfoy and the Board of Governors actually have a point regarding Dumbledore’s reckless administration of the school which unnecessarily exposes students to mortal danger and incompetent pedagogy. Ms Novik’s Scholomance makes Hogwarts look like a daycare centre for particularly squishy toddlers. The Scholomance has no headmasters or teachers around to protect the teenagers, and the whole revolving drum-shaped institution is fully automated, floating in a Lovecraftian void. Nightmarish creatures of all shapes and descriptions (called maleficaria) infiltrate it incessantly and ambush the fledgling wizards within at every opportunity: during meals, while showering, or even when they are asleep in bed. Further upping the danger level is some of its students who are actively malevolent—called maleficers—and practices dark magic. They do some of the murdering, since it’s an easy way to gain power and thus, increases one’s chance of survival. So why do wizard parents allow their kids to attend this diabolic charnel house? Well, it’s because being at the Scholomance is less deadly than not being there. As a wizard kid grows older, they start attracting maleficaria which hunger for their magical essence, and they need someplace relatively sheltered in order to grow in strength. The story follows the main character Galadriel “El” Higgin’s time there.

Before I proceed with this review, I want to address some accusations of racism that had been leveled at A Deadly Education (summarised in this Twitter thread by user asma). The worst of it is a paragraph describing locs as being prone to infestation by monstrous annelids.

Going fully shaved like that is popular if you can afford it. Dreadlocks are unfortunately not a great idea thanks to lockleeches, which you can probably imagine, but in case you need help, the adult spindly thing comes quietly down at night and pokes an ovipositor into any big clumps of hair, lays an egg inside, and creeps away. A little while later the leech hatches inside its comfy nest, attaches itself to your scalp almost unnoticeably, and starts very gently sucking up your blood and mana while infiltrating further. If you don’t get it out within a week or two, it usually manages to work its way inside the skull, and you’ve got a window of a few days after that before you stop being able to move. On the bright side, something else usually finishes you off quickly at that point.

I find that the charge against the most egregious offence of the book—the one which described dreadlocks as being “not a great idea” because it would be targeted by monstrous “lockleeches”—to be a legitimate complaint. It does perpetuate some troubling ideas about black hairstyles being dirty or prone for infestation. I get that in the context of A Deadly Education, ANY kind of elaborate hairstyle or even long hair is described as a bad idea in the Scholomance but it’s no excuse and it is not a good look for the book to single out locs.

I find the rest of the laundry list of complaints which followed that primary one to be less meritorious and sometimes, completely lacking in merit. I think how one perceives and reviews a book depends on how much one likes it. If you like a book, you are more likely to notice and remember its positive aspects, and forgive its faults. And if you dislike it, you are more likely to notice more faults and, in some cases, more likely to assume the author is at fault in the face of inconclusive evidence. It affects how charitable we are towards an author or a book. Let me give you some examples,

  • Now, I am Chinese and I belong to one of the ethnic demographic groups that Ms Novik supposedly injured with her ignorance in this book. Some had complained that the character Yi Liu is as bad as Cho Chang (whose name is famously accused of being made up of two surnames) in the Harry Potter books, and the fact that she is often referred to as Liu (presumed to be her last name) by other characters is also perceived to be something negative. I just want to remind everyone that even the Cho Chang complaint is not an open-shut case, given the differences in how Chinese names are romanised across the world. In fact, depending on which dialect or sinitic language Cho Chang was romanised from, it can be a legit name. In fact, the romanisation of Chinese names is such a clusterfuck that most Chinese people have trouble disentangling it as well. Wikipedia lists 23 different variants of my surname alone, depending on which dialect or sinitic language (Korean, Vietnamese, etc) it is romanised from. Also the correct way to write a Chinese name is to place the surname ahead of the given name, but in some countries practicing different naming conventions, Chinese persons often flip this (and sometimes even drop the middle name). Sometimes, some syllables of a Chinese name may be joined together or hypenated, like how the current premier of China’s name is Xi Jin Ping but you can also romanise it as either Xi Jin-ping or Xi Jinping. Many diaspora Chinese and Hong Kong natives adopt English or Christian names, like Donnie Yen or Jackie Chan, similar to how another character mentioned in A Deadly Education is called Jane Goh. I am just barely scratching the surface of how complicated this issue is. Yi Liu might be a given name in its entirety with an unknown surname, or more uncommonly, a name with just 2 characters/syllables instead of 3, with either Yi or Liu as the surname. This cannot be considered Ms Novik’s fault since this ambiguity and confusion exists in real life, and I can hardly imagine her dedicating an entire chapter of her book to explain all the intricacies of a side character’s name. So, if I am inclined to be charitable (and I am), I would actually praise Ms Novik for having other characters correctly refer to Yi Liu as Liu, since that’s where her given name would be.
  • Another complaint is that a group of Scholomance students from the Dubai enclave having skills in both Arabic and Hindi, citing it is insensitive because of labour issues in Dubai. Still, approximately 85% of Dubai’s population is made up of expats and 71% of them are from Asia, primarily India, so what’s wrong? Should she completely avoid acknowledging the diversity in Dubai or should she stop the entire novel to talk about modern slavery in the Emirates even though it has nothing to do with the fantasy story?
  • There are conflicting criticisms about how the half-Welsh, half-Indian protagonist, El, is essentially a white girl with brown skin, considering how out of touch she is with the Indian side of her family (even though she was primarily raised by her Welsh mother in a hippie commune in the UK, which would explain why). Yet at the same time, they criticise how she is depicted as being unhygienic which is also not okay because it conflates being Indian with uncleanliness. I wish they would make up their mind on whether they see El as white or Indian. Why not blame her white hippie upbringing, which is stereotyped for being unwashed as well? Only a most uncharitable reader would see racism here since contextually, NO ONE in the Scholomance gets to shower much due to it being a potentially deadly activity. Being Indian and not showering was not singled out in the story the way the dreadlocks case was. Additionally, as a 100% Chinese diaspora kid myself, I must say that it is quite common for us to have trouble identifying with our culture or country of origin. While I do speak a couple of Chinese dialects (Cantonese and Mandarin), I cannot actually read Chinese. Because of this, I have often felt like I am in a world apart from other Chinese who are “more” Chinese than I am. They call people like me “bananas”, an allusion to how I am yellow on the outside, but white inside, so I actually identify a lot with El.
  • There are patently false criticisms like how the character “Ibrahim shows up when they need Arabic, Aadhya has links to Hindi and Bengali speakers, Liu speaks Mandarin, but they have no real other character”. To me, none of them are defined as characters only by the languages they speak. Ibrahim is a minor character but he seems to have a bit of a crush or hero worship thing going on for Orion Lake, the second biggest character in the book. Aadhya is repeatedly shown to be a gifted artificer, social networker, and a good friend. Yi Liu has her whole entire side plot (and an actual arc) about her trying to survive the Scholomance by quietly being a maleficer! It makes me wonder if they even read the same book.
  • Some people have grumbled about how Ms Novik appropriated the word “mana” in A Deadly Education to describe arcane energy or life force that the characters use to do magic while neglecting the word’s Melanesian/Polynesian root. Again, I feel this issue cannot be laid at Ms Novik feet since the word had been a staple of fantasy literature, role-playing games and video games for decades now. And I am pretty sure the people who is criticising Ms Novik now have used other Melanesian/Polynesian loanwords like “taboo” (Tongan) and “tattoo” (Samoan) before.

“You really think other kids get jumped a lot more?” he said abruptly, like he’d been stewing over it the whole time.

“You aren’t that bright, are you,” I said, speaking from downward-dog position. “Why do you think people want to be in enclaves in the first place?”

“That’s outside,” he said. “We’re all in here together. Everyone has the same chances—”

He turned around to look at me halfway through that sentence, at which point my upside-down stare knocked him off track and he listened to the regurgitated rubbish coming out of his own mouth.

Now, I will agree that this book does not handle racial diversity as thoroughly and thoughtfully as it could have, and I think there is something to be said about white creators writing biracial characters who are out of touch with their “ethnic side” to avoid having to do that side justice, to score easy diversity points without putting in the work. But something that did not get mentioned in a lot of critical reviews is how the ideas of class, wealth, and privilege is intimately tied to A Deadly Education‘s world-building and plot. I think it was done quite well and Ms Novik engaged the topic in a reasonably extensive and critical manner. It’s no accident that the most powerful and prosperous enclaves (basically magical factions) in the book are from places like New York and London as well.

Sure, we can wish A Deadly Education is more intersectional than it is. We can wish the book also considers race/ethnicity more deeply as well, but just because a book isn’t perfect and isn’t able to accomplish everything doesn’t mean it is bad. Personally speaking, I am not very eager to see a white American fantasy author tackle racism and am actually glad she didn’t. I believe every author, white or otherwise, have cultural blind spots, and the issues in A Deadly Education remind me of the antagonist white dragon Lien in Ms Novik’s Temeraire series, who was shunned because the Chinese considers white to be an unlucky and funereal colour. Yet, at the same time, other dragons belonging to the same draconic breed as her are revered in China, even though they are all black (also a colour which has negative connotations in Chinese culture—I should know, I’ve been told off repeatedly by my grandmother for wearing black clothes during Chinese New Year). Yes, it’s sloppy, but I think any author writing about cultures outside of their own is going to make mistakes and if I am unable to forgive them when they stumble, I’ll have to read books which only feature characters belonging to the author’s own race and I don’t want that.

I just got the book last night and read it in one sitting—so you can tell that I liked it. Longtime fans of Ms Novik will also see her abandoning her usual writing style for a less formal first person YA voice, and depending on one’s tolerance level for this style, it can be either a good thing or bad. I think Galadriel or El is a character who is easy to like, and has that combination of sarcastic taciturnity that I see in Tamsym Muir’s Gideon or Harrow, so the tone suits her well. I also really like the idea of a protagonist who is prophesised to be the Big Bad or Evil Overlord of the world, but tries very hard to avoid that fate. Ms Novik got a lot of laughs from me with how El is constantly being coaxed by the school itself to indulge in destruction and mayhem by comically misconstruing her requests,

“You’ve seen one of these before?”

“I’ve got a summoning spell that raises a dozen of them,” I said. “It was used to burn down the Library of Alexandria.”

“Why would you ask for a spell like that!”

“What I asked for was a spell to light my room, you twat, that’s what I got.” To be fair, the incarnate flame was in fact doing a magnificent job of lighting the room.

As much as I enjoyed Ms Novik’s previous books, Uprooted and Spinning Silver, I did not much care for the romance in both, which I consider to be problematic and abusive. A Deady Education is much improved in this regard with the himbo love interest, Orion Lake, who is everyone’s hero. I like how it started from El basically allowing other people to believe they are dating and not correcting them, while Orion remains seemingly oblivious about how his actions make it look. It seems that El and Orion’s relationship will be an important matter going forward in this series (given that mini cliffhanger at the end) so I am glad I enjoyed reading its development.

So what does this leave us? A Deadly Education is a good book for me. It’s not great, and it can do better when it comes to racial representation, but it is by no means the flaming, Heil-Hitlering, racist trashfire that some reviewers are making it out to be. I believe that it is entirely possible for anyone to commit acts of microaggression in their writing unwittingly (nothing in Ms Novik’s entire oeuvre or behaviour made me think she was being bigoted on purpose, unlike The Author Who Must Not Be Named), and I hope the author takes some of these criticisms into consideration for her future books. Similarly, I think it is important to point out what’s bad about a book without forgetting everything good about it either. I for one, am still looking forward to read its sequel, The Last Graduate, when it comes out.

P.S. Note that this review only reflects MY personal opinion. I do not speak for all people of colour or Chinese people. I also docked 0.5 points from my rating of this book for the dreadlocks thing.

Update (2:30PM, 11/10/2020): It appears that Naomi Novik had issued an official apology, vowing to get the text rectified in e-book copies and future printings and editions. I guess that means I am now in possession of one of the limited copies of the book with the offending dreadlocks passage.

Rating: 3.75/5 Naga Pearls

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

10 thoughts on “The Intersectionality of Magical Academia: A Review of Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education

  1. (No need to publish this.)

    Thanks for the thoughtful commentary – one thing I want to note about the Arabic/Hindi thing is it’s not just modern Dubai, Hindus and Muslims have a…history, and a present. Seriously, my *father* just threw out some nonsense on how the Ayodhya violence is justified because 800 years ago, the Mughals burned down a Hindu temple. Obviously this doesn’t preclude the existence of people who straddle cultures in both languages, but it does raise my eyebrows all the way to my hairline to see it mentioned casually.

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  2. Are you really trying to call people out for canceling Novik while participating in canceling Rowling?

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  3. You’ve lived an extremely privileged life if you were offended by a woman trying to stand up for sex-based rights. Signed, someone who actually had to suffer in a third-world country.

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  4. As a medical and mental health professional born in, and STILL living in a 3rd world country, I happen to have a more nuanced view on gender than that extremely privileged billionaire white author and I simply will not stand for her spouting half-truths and misrepresentations of the transgender community and contributing to their ostracisation and discrimination. If you have nothing relevant to say on the topic at hand (i.e Novik’s novel), kindly go bother someone else. Any more off topic comments from you will be deleted. Thank you.

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  5. Hi, thanks for chiming in. I lived and studied in India for several years, so I am quite familiar with the grievances between Hindus and Muslims (both past and present). A microcosm of that conflict can be seen even between the Hindus and Muslims in my own country. Considering how minor a role the Dubai enclave played in the story, I don’t think Novik is going to go into too much detail on why its members happen to be proficient in both Hindi and Arabic. Aside from Ibrahim, we don’t really know who the members in this enclave are. I do have my own pet theories though. Magical enclaves are sub-societies embedded amongst the normal people, and it was mentioned in the novel that many wizards don’t even work normal jobs. And another thing we learn is the more languages one masters, the more spells one has access to. Now, is the Dubai enclave made up of only Arabs, South Asian expats, or a mixture? Seeing as magic in Novik’s novel is heritable, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine the minority magical community banding together in the enclave—and they may just have taught each other. If the enclave is mostly South Asian expats, they might have picked up some Arabic before even going to the Scholomance just by virtue of living in Dubai (as expats are wont to do). If the enclave consists of mostly UAE Arabs, they might have chosen to learn Hindi when they were at the Scholomance because they’ve picked up some words or phrases from the South Asian expats (and think it’d be easier to pick up a language they often hear rather than something more exotic). Maybe the enclave is made up of South Asians expats who are Muslims, since many Indians are Muslims as well, and may already have some Arabic grounding from reading the Qur’an. Was Novik thoughtless? Or does Novik have perfectly a good explanation for this that she couldn’t fit into the novel because it is irrelevant to the plot or story? Also, it is very common for fantasy to feature fantasy subcultures that do simply do not share our real world prejudices and enmities, since the subcultures might have completely different histories and social dynamics. We may never know but I think it is reaching to accuse her of racism, ignorance or insensitivity for this.

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  6. I have yet to read this book. It was nice to read a plot spoiler free review that offers a more controversial perspective in comparison to the positive reviews on Goodreads. Thank you for your review.

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