I was going to put off my RBR until I had at least another book to throw on here, but then I started craving another Fire reread, so I figured I may as well just write up these reviews now before too much of it slips my mind. It’s just as well, because, if you know anything about A Deadly Education, you probably know it stirred up a little bit of controversy, and I wanted to be able to spend a little time talking about that.
So, without further ado, let’s dive into the reviews. Fair warning, this will be spoiler-free for both of the books, but at least in the case of Rule of Wolves, there may be spoilers for previous Grishaverse books. Consider yourself warned.
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
A synopsis: Being a magically-inclined teenager is dangerous business, and the only way to have half a chance is to get into the Scholomance, a great, big, magical school full of things that are also trying to kill you. El, an incredibly powerful sorceress with magic inclined towards razing cities to the ground, wants nothing more than to just get through school alive. But when fellow student Orion Lake saves her life (again), El finds she’s going to have some choices to make, many of which will impact her chances for survival.
The review: While its commentary on race was a little tactless (we’ll get to that in a minute), its portrayal of isolation, of characters with strict morals put in impossible situations, and of self-sabotage created a mesmerizing, empowering narrative about a girl who refuses to be evil despite everyone and everything, even her own magic, gives her an excuse to slip to the dark side. El and all of the major named characters felt three-dimensional, dripping with life.
The novel did drag on several occasions. El is an incredibly smart character, and that is shown through consistent swaths of info-dumping. They rarely felt unnatural, the inserts of information, but they did slow the pace down considerably. Knowing so much about the world lent credence to character motivations and to the novel’s stakes, so that if you’re able to stick with the story until the end, it packs a much heftier punch because of it. (I did a pretty thorough, albeit spoiler-filled, story-beat study for this book a few weeks ago, if interested.) It definitely has the potential to pull at your heartstrings.
Going in Color-Blind
I think where Novik stumbled was in her approach to the school. It’s an international institution. If everyone is fighting for their lives, then no one will have time to worry about standing prejudices or anything like that, right? And this sort of color-blind approach can pretty much be seen throughout the novel. Names give the reader a sense of each character’s nationality, and in some cases, El offers the enclave those characters are from, hinting at but never explaining or describing any characters’ actual appearances.
Lack of descriptions are frustrating enough, but it seems too much to sincerely expect these magical people magically also got rid of their prejudices except for those related to mana usage and enclave membership. And this very concept, that people are too busy surviving to care much about prejudices, also apparently leads to carelessness when it comes to cultural insensitivity. Novik is a white writer; it’s fair that she was hesitant to attempt writing about things she’s never had to face. Yet in trying to ignore the racist society in which we live, it led to the awfully insensitive passage about dreadlocks, a curious lack of curiosity on El’s part in the lesser-known half of her father’s heritage, among other things.
Does that make this a bad book to read? Well, as I’m not part of the affected minority groups, I can’t really say one way or another. But as a queer woman, if I think about the possibility of an author writing harmful passages that do directly relate to me, while I obviously probably wouldn’t want to read the book myself, I feel like I wouldn’t deny people the chance to read those books so long as they’re aware of the problematic elements in the text so that they can challenge the inherent assumptions involved. I wouldn’t want to cancel the author, so to speak, especially in cases like these, where the author apologized. But even in cases like with J. K. Rowling, who refuses to acknowledge the harm in her own words, I can’t begrudge people for continuing to read the Harry Potter series when I know what it means to the people who connect so strongly to the narrative.
So basically the long and short of it is, I think it’s important to bring attention to the representative flaws of a novel, but as long as the novel’s premise is not prejudiced at its core (and I would argue that A Deadly Education is not), then the author shouldn’t be cancelled for their mistakes, because it discourages other authors from trying to be inclusive for fear of doing it wrong. Obviously, no one should be forced to read a book that makes them uncomfortable, so if the cultural insensitivity noted in a particular book feels wrong to you, then by all means, don’t read it. But I also hesitate to completely bypass a book just because it got negative press, when it can be so much more than its flaws. I was incredibly disappointed in the color-blind nature of the text, but at least I knew what to expect when I started reading it, and the self-destructive behavior of the protagonist, the fear of turning evil when one just wants to be good; that really struck a cord, in the same vein as Katsa or Fire in the Graceling Realm, and I wouldn’t want to deny a reader that sort of meaningful connection as a result of an author’s ignorance. But that’s just my take on it, and I’m certain not everyone will agree.
Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo
A synopsis: After failing the obisbaya ritual, Nikolai returns to Os Alta to untangle the various conflicts left unresolved in King of Scars, not least of which is the looming war with Fjerda that Nikolai isn’t sure he can avoid. Not even with the help of his spy on the inside, Nina, as she and Hanne try to worm their way further into the court to get information. As a war seems more and more inevitable, with old enemies cropping up and the whole world being slowly unmade, it will take everything they have for Nikolai, Zoya, and Nina to stay alive.
The review: This book had a lot going on. Direct conflict with two countries, the unnecessary return of one of the Grishaverse’s main villains, and even a magical threat, it was… a bit much, to say the least. And one of the most frustrating habits Bardugo employed for this duology was multiple perspectives where the chapter cut out at a cliffhanger and the next chapter was in another person’s point of view regarding a completely separate plotline, so I frequently had to do myself the favor of flipping forward a few chapters just to see what happened.
There was definitely some good character growth for a few of the main characters. Zoya, especially. But, honestly, although I really wanted to love and be excited for this book, I found it a bit of a let-down. A rather beloved character got killed off, for no apparent reason, not even to rally the troops or for some major, heart-broken bit of magic to save the day in their darkest hour. It was meaningless, and it hurt, and it made me angry. But it might’ve been forgiveable if the ending hadn’t been rather lackluster, improbable and odd for pretty much all of the protagonists. It raises more questions than it answers, in a way, and even though it poses itself as a happy ending, there are still some political and financial concerns that are never really addressed.
Recommended for: People who were major fans of the Grishaverse novels. I think readers who somewhat enjoyed the other novels might find this enjoyable, but the duology is just so long compared to the other books, many of the more casual readers of the series may find it a waste of time.