It is always pleasant to be taken by surprise with a novel, and, a few cultural missteps notwithstanding, A Deadly Education provided just that. (For the concerned reader, I do plan on delving into this in my book review, but this post is already long enough as it is.) The author, Naomi Novik, uses world-building to discreetly showcase the protagonist’s intelligence in addition to grounding the reader in the world and establishing the stakes. The story is slow to start, however, primarily as a result of an Unestablished Plot Path (which is to say, there is no real indication what the story is building towards, what climactic event the plot is moving towards) and heavy info-dumping, which means it’s up to us to determine if the benefits outweigh the cost in regards to the info/plot ratio.
This is going to be a hybrid between my story-beat and setting study, which means there will be a pretty thorough discussion of plot from beginning to end as well as setting information, so consider this your warning: spoilers abound. There will be a spoiler-free book review before too long for those of you who are considering reading this book.
A Deadly Education is like if Harry Potter and The Magicians had a baby, in a way. It uses the setting trope of “Magician School”: the protagonist et al are in a school for people with magic where they can learn all the necessary spellwork to survive outside of the school, usually having to face some kind of evil person as the main conflict (Voldemort, the Beast, etc.) Normally, the primary setting details would involve the location of the school, the curriculum, and in what ways the supposed safety of the school can be breached to allow brief conflicts between the protagonist and the antagonist.
A Deadly Education follows its predecessors in two out of the three, and you can probably guess where it diverges. For much of the novel, the reader doesn’t really know who the main antagonist will be, if there even is one. There are plenty of minor conflicts through the story, but without an established plot direction, it’s impossible for the reader to know if each of these conflicts are random occurrences or building towards something.
The synopsis of the book focuses on the conflict between Orion Lake and the protagonist, Galadriel (El for short). El has the potential to be an incredibly powerful dark sorceress, if she’s willing to let her moral compass go, but that’s not the kind of person she wants to be. The synopsis ends with the line, “Although I’m giving serious consideration to [slaughtering] just one,” that one person being Orion. However, it’s clear from the beginning that El has a spiky, sarcastic nature, and that she would not kill Orion. In fact, they become something like allies pretty early on, so if it’s not Orion who’s her enemy, who is? In a way, the synopsis could have perhaps solved the problem by giving a more accurate implied plot direction for the reader, but we’ll work with what we have.
A Brief Setting Breakdown
El’s world is full of magic for those lucky (or unlucky, depending on one’s point of view) to be capable of wielding it. But magic comes with its own dangers, specifically in the form of maleficaria (mals for short), monstrous creatures hungry for magical humans, especially the younger ones, brimming with untapped potential, etc. This is where the Scholomance comes in. It’s a relatively large school, but it’s not big enough for every single magical kid, so it prioritizes the kids from the enclaves that built it (enclaves being basically communities of magicians who work together to live in relative safety and who generally hold a lot of power over smaller, unofficial communities and individual magicians).
The Scholomance is not without its own dangers, though. Maleficaria infiltrate the school on the daily, meaning that kids studying there have to be super vigilant. But the classes they learn will help them against the various mals. Usually, the number of kids who make it all the way through graduation is very small (but the chances of surviving the school are much higher than surviving on your own). Making alliances with other kids–especially the enclave kids, if one can–is the best way to survive. Unfortunately, El’s affinity makes people immediately distrust her without even knowing why. That means El is forced to go through the school alone.
There are two different sources of magic. Mana is the more ethical source because it comes from one’s own work. Exactly how it works is a little unclear, but basically it transfers effort into magic. For example, El uses workouts to generate mana (helping her become fit, although the more fit she becomes the more working out she needs to do to generate the same amount of magic) as well as crocheting (which is implied to generate mana because she finds crocheting incredibly difficult and annoying). A more powerful way to get magic is through malia. However, this requires taking lives to steal their magic for oneself. One can sacrifice animals for a smaller gain or one can even take human lives, but although this generates more magic, it’s not without its cost. Usually, it leads to a much shorter lifespan. And also plenty of enemies.
A Discussion of the Six Major Plot Points
One: Orion rushes into El’s room, killing a mal and “saving” her life. (1%)
This serves as the inciting incident, bringing El and Orion together in the first major capacity in their three years of going to school here together. It quickly establishes important three vital bits of character: Orion has a bad habit of saving people, that it’s made him something of a hero in the eyes of the school, and that El is not the kind of person to need saving and she’s most certainly not the kind to fall in line with the groupies that love Orion for his daring heroics.
From a reader’s perspective, the inciting incident establishes the unlikeliness of El following through and actually killing Orion, but it’s pretty early on in the novel, and there’s enough curiosity in how she will deal with it instead to keep reading. From an overall plot perspective, it does the very important job of putting Orion and El directly in each other’s path. The type of mal he killed will also serve as another bit of proof that there will be a price to pay for his heroics–the mals that normally wait for their inevitable feast on graduation day are getting hungry, willing to fight to get higher up in the school to feast on the younger kids.
Two: A fellow student tries to kill El to keep her from talking about another murdered student. (19%)
This is a major deciding point for the protagonist. El gets shivved by a character named Jack, a maleficer who’s gone dark side with his malia usage. (She knows he killed another character, Luisa, for malia, but has wisely kept it to herself thus far.) But it’s late at night, she doesn’t have her magic right on her, and in that moment, she has two options: she can steal Jack’s magic to save herself but become a proper maleficer in the process, or she can say a big eff-you to the prophecy that says she’s going to destroy untold millions and risk death to fight Jack the clean way. She chooses the latter.
From the reader’s perspective: this offers two pieces of contradicting intrigue. On the one hand, if El isn’t willing to go dark side to save her own life, this practically cements their assumptions that she would never actually kill Orion. But the book has also killed a character that had begun to be set up as a potential main antagonist. So if it’s not Orion and it’s not Jack, this firmly strands the reader. If there’s no major antagonist yet and there’s no solid set-up for a catastrophe for the characters to fight against at the end, what will the major conflict be? And if there’s no major conflict, then that leaves the reader with stakes that will possibly build up to nothing.
From an overall plot perspective, though, this does prove El’s innocence in the eyes of Orion, who will take that fact and run with it considering he already appreciates how she treats him like a normal human being. And because Orion is the darling of the school, their “romance” puts El in a favorable position with many of the enclave kids, if she wants to claim it.
Three: El puts her life on the line to save half the school from a supposedly unbeatable mal prowling the halls. (41%)
This is the second major deciding point for the protagonist. For a girl supposedly destined to become some dark malia sorceress who will destroy the lives of untold millions, it’s important that she proved to herself (and the reader) that she’d rather die than use malia. And now, she’s willing to risk death to save people, despite the fact that it’s a maw-mouth, a mal already stated to be next to impossible to kill. It’s essentially an amalgamation of all the souls it devoured, so it would require enough killing spells to kill all the souls the maw-mouth already devoured. Luckily, thanks to a school trying to cultivate El’s affinity, she happens to have a lot of killing spells on hand, and she uses them for good.
At this point, the gravity of the school’s situation is becoming more and more apparent to the reader, and El continuing to subvert expectations is interesting enough to keep a reader going. However, the book is nearly at a halfway point and has yet to establish any hint of the direction the plot might take. It will feel like it’s still meandering because there’s no view of the end goal.
The maw-mouth proves just how starved the mals are for food, because such mals usually wait in the graduation hall to feast on the seniors as they fight their way through to the doors. But the book has not given the reader any indication that this is, in fact, the big problem that El will have to solve. It’s written as if these mals are an inconvenience and a danger, but not the end conflict.
Four: El’s loyalty pays off, and Aadhya proposes an alliance between herself, Liu, and El. (60%)
Up until this point, El’s temporary fame (thanks to her “relationship” with Orion) has put her in a position to take advantage of the enclave kids and leave the loners like Aadhya and Liu in the dust. Instead, she makes an effort to include them in with the enclave kids, proving that she pays back debts of kindness. This will pay off when El comes to the realization that she doesn’t want to join the enclave alliances because she doesn’t like the power dynamics, a fact that Aadhya learns. They do something crazy: they forgo the enclavers and decide to make their own alliance, which will be imperative in their senior year so that, on their own graduation day, they’re a practiced fighting unit against the mals.
If anything, this serves to strand the readers even further, because it reminds them that the major conflict in front of our protagonist isn’t really until graduation day, and she’s still a junior. But they’re too far into the book to believe it’ll be able to cover the entirety of her senior year as well, which leaves them wondering what El will fight by the end of things.
The constant stream of information regarding mals, the outside world, the running of the school, etc., serves to keep the determined reader interested. Certainly, there’s enough conflict throughout the book to keep things from feeling dull and slow. And this serves as a turning point for El, the moment she goes from being a loner to being part of a group, if she accepts the proposal (which she does in the next chapter). But the reader still doesn’t know exactly what the author is building towards.
Five: El and company discover that seniors are making it easier for the mals to get into the rest of the school so the seniors have fewer mals to fight against on graduation day. (76%)
Finally, things start to tie together. Orion’s heroics has kept the mals hungry, which will mean that a lot more seniors are going to die trying to get out of the school. To save themselves, the seniors decided to balance things out by helping the mals along, weakening sections of the walls so they could break through and feast on the lower classmen. But this is, of course, unfair because the lower classmen aren’t fully trained or equipped to handle such things. So El brings her people together–Aadhya, Liu, Orion, and Chloe (one of the more honest enclavers)–to fix the wall before all hell can truly break loose.
This essentially sets up the final conflict for the readers. It implies that the seniors are the quasi-antagonists, although there isn’t much El and her group can do against an entire class. But it shows that the mals are a real problem, and that something needs to be done, for everyone’s sake. They can’t call out the seniors who were trying to weaken the walls, because the rest of the senior class will just stand by them, rendering the whole thing moot. And, of course, Orion feels guilty, because by saving students, he’s effectively killed a lot of the seniors, and he wants to help.
So when one of the seniors comes up with an idea–fixing the mechanics in the graduation hall that was supposed to prevent the mals from getting so out of control (by killing most of them with magic fire)–the reader finally, finally, knows what the big fight at the end of the book is going to be.
Six: El, Orion, and the most skilled magicians descend to the graduation hall to fix the mechanisms. (88%)
Our protagonist goes from being the outcast loner to being responsible for the entire school working together. Everyone pitches in some mana. The “maintenance-track kids” (those who get invited into enclave alliances in return for doing a lot of the enclavers’ manual labor) pick out the best in their ranks to fix the mechanisms. The strongest seniors band work with El to create a shield that will protect the maintenance kids long enough for them to fix the mechanisms. And Orion, of course, will fight off as many of the mals as he can to keep the worst of things off the shield.
This is the climax, the big fight, the accumulation of all the character arcs and established stakes built up from the world-building, etc. Although it takes a long time to get the characters in an identifiable end-game position, it presents the reader with the perfect conclusion to their arcs.
Which leads to the denouement, of El and Orion finally reconciling the status of their “relationship,” preparing for their senior year, and so forth, and leaving us on the rather odd but intriguing cliffhanger of a note from El’s mother warning her to stay away from Orion, despite the fact that it’s very apparent El and Orion are two sides of the same coin.
One might think that having an Established Plot Path is the same thing as being predictable. Really, what it means is identifying your protagonist’s motivations, their want. In the whole “every character should want something even if it’s only a glass of water,” addage, saying that a character wants a glass of water doesn’t tell the reader that they’re going to get what they want; it only implies what goal they are working towards.
It gives the plot a direction, establishing the journey by connecting plot points A, B, and C rather than just having the character interact with those plots on separate bases. And because a character’s want is usually more complex than just getting a glass of water (thwarting the Dark One in Wheel of Time, saving the Dells in Fire, breaking a scientist out of the Ice Court in Six of Crows), there are plenty of plot points that bring the characters closer to their goal. It makes each scene have a purpose and promises the reader that the author is not wasting their time by reading some pointless scene.
That said, a reader doesn’t have to know exactly where a novel is heading from the beginning, primarily because a the draw of a story is not just the excitement a reader feels over the various plot points. If this was the case, there would be no difference between plot- and character-driven novels. Knowing that a protagonist has plenty of room for growth suggests emotional stakes all on its own, and for certain setting lovers such as myself, sometimes a really fantastic, in-depth description of a world can be worth investing on its own merit. Somehow, having a bit of a meandering start can also lead to an emotional gut-punch at the finale (see my To Sleep in a Sea of Stars review).
Really, the important thing to realize is that having an Unestablished Plot Path can alienate the readers because there isn’t that implication of importance behind each scene. Readers who are used to slower-paced novels, who enjoy fantasy for the potential of really rich settings, may be more forgiving when it comes to a plot that is slow to coalesce. It’s just important for authors to recognize that the longer a novel goes without establishing an end goal, the more likely a reader is to drop the book completely out of fear that there won’t be an end goal. So although we can see in hindsight that Novik was in fact building up to the conclusion throughout the entire book, it perhaps can be safely declared that the reader would have benefited from something a little more concrete earlier in the book, or perhaps even from a slightly more plot-accurate synopsis.