Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Strong Recommendation, or, An Open Letter to Sarah K.

Dear Sarah,

I owe you an actual email to you, first of all, and that will come. But I'm in a tricky place here. See, I want to force feed A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik, to almost literally everyone I meet, including babies and cats. But I am trying to decide whether to recommend it directly to you.

First: did I love it? Yes, yes I did. How much did I love it? Here's a thing I've literally never done before: I read the book, got to the end, and two days later was not able to stop myself from going back to the beginning and starting the book again. I am halfway through my second read through, a week after my book club talked about it. I love it so much

What did I love? Let's start with Galadriel, the main character, whose voice is absolutely god damned perfect. She is brilliant and unlikable and incredibly rude. She is fragile and perceptive and so lonely. She is trying so hard all the time, and no one can even see it to appreciate it. She is never anything but honest, even when she's playing games with social politics. She's loyal even when she doesn't believe she has anyone to be loyal to. My soul absolutely yearns toward her.

The world building! Imagine Hogwarts without the cheerful fun, just the horrible monsters that seem to crop up in the basement and pipes every now and then. The Scholomance is a school designed to keep magical children as safe as possible from the maleficaria, the creatures that feed on their growing manna. "As safe as possible," however, is not terribly safe, and the school is a very dangerous place to be. 

Galadriel is trying to make her way through school, stay alive, and hopefully make enough of a reputation as a powerful magician to get a spot in one of the safe, walled enclaves when she's out, in spite of the fact that no one ever seems to like her. It doesn't help that she's got a strong innate talent for massive acts of epic destruction. She's destined to be a supervillain, but she absolutely refuses--which means she's fighting the magic as well as her classmates' prejudices.

The book is so good. It fills my heart--the detailed description of the political machinations, of how the school functions and how that forces the students to behave, of the underlying motivations behind obvious behaviors--it's all just spot on brilliant and I love it.

Why, then, you ask me, Sarah, why are you even doubting that you should recommend this wonderful book to me? Here's the thing: it breaks a LOT of rules of "good" writing. There is a huge amount of what I would normally call infodump--chapters where El just explains how magic works, how the school work, how the enclaves work. Objectively, it's a lot. Subjectively, it's a complete pleasure to read--her snarky voice and very practical explanations make me feel like I'm learning useful info about a world I will never be in.

But this results in pages that are single paragraphs of information, long anecdotes told directly to the reader by the narrator. There are chunks that are just about going to class, laced with liberal anecdotes about how dangerous that is.

So I'm cautious--can you get past the walls of text? I think you really should. Because besides what a pleasure it is, the book also takes on some wonderful ideas--ideas about power and the perception of power, about not knowing privilege when you have it, about all kinds of diversity and otherness--and it takes them on with such sympathy and compassion for all these teenagers who are just doing their damnednest not to get eaten by a maw mouth or a siren spider or a soul eater.

Yeah, okay, I've come to a conclusion. Sarah, you should really read this book. Whoever else you are, if you're reading this post, you should also totally and definitely read this book. 

Then maybe read it again.

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