Sunday, January 03, 2021

Hogwarts Was a Dangerous Place

 I read a Tumblr post back when school started up in person that said something like "I used to that people sending kids to a school where they're likely to be eaten by a giant snake was implausible, but now I see it." 

I'm reading Naomi Novik's A Deadly Education, about a school of magic where your job is just to survive while the school spends four years or so trying to kill you. Or rather, the beasties try to kill you while you're stuck in the school; "graduation" is just survival, and the rates are dismal.

This book is making me so happy I can't even tell you. I keep having to put it down because I like the cranky, grouchy, snarky narrator so much and every time she has a warm feeling she grouses about it and my heart explodes. 

It's one of my favorite kinds of books, which is a detailed, systematic look at how to go about living in a difficult situation. A big part of what I love is just the exposition, the ethnographic detail of how 1,000 teenagers do everything from negotiate status to use the bathroom without getting eaten by something out of the drain. There is so much worldbuilding and every bit of it is fascinating in both its creativity and its mundanity.

El, the main character, is a very gifted magician with a natural affinity for enormous acts of death and destruction. But she refuses to be a malificer. Unfortunately, that means working against her own magical affinity, and everything is twice as hard for her, and everyone still looks at her like she just might kill them in their sleep. Her whole life has been this way; she's used to it.

Then she meets Orion Lake, who is Not Harry Potter but is prone to wandering around the school saving random lives. He saves her life at an inopportune moment, and she snarks at him. Thus begins a friendship that is entirely incomprehensible to everyone at school, including El. 

El is an angry, brilliant delight. She is unlikable and knows it and has worked around it all her life, but god she's tired. She's very good at the strategy and tactics that are involved in the elaborate political and survival machinations in the school hierarchy, even though she's near the bottom of the pecking order. And as people start to really see her--for better or worse--she stays determinedly herself.

In the larger sense, the book is about power and privilege, and the parts of the power structure that you can only see from the outside. It's also about what makes a person a good person, or a worthy person, especially when driven to extremes. And it's about deprivation, and human contact, and friendship and strength and my heart is in a puddle on the floor again. I'm going to die because of how much I love this book. Five stars. All the stars. I might have to read it again.

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