Pluralistic: Naomi Novik's Scholomance trilogy (29 Mar 2023)

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The covers of Naomi Novik's Scholomance trilogy in sequence from left to right: The Last Graduate, A Deadly Education and The Golden Enclaves. Each has a kind of brushed-gold effect frame around a solid rectangle on which is a woodcut-style figure (in order: a keyhole, a book, and a portal with an eye showing through it. The rectangles are, in order, forest green, black, and brushed gold.

Naomi Novik's Scholomance trilogy (permalink)

The Scholomance trilogy is Naomi Novik's take on a "school for wizardry":




Novik takes a belt-sander to all the crumbling tropes left by lesser writers to reveal fresh wood beneath, fashioning something breathtakingly new:

Here's the premise: the wizards of the world live in constant peril from maleficaria – the magic monsters that prey on those born with magic, especially the children. In a state of nature, only one in ten wizard kids reaches adulthood.

So the wizarding world built the Scholomance, a fully automated magical secondary school that exists in the void – a dimension beyond our world. The Scholomance is also an extremely dangerous place – three quarters of the wizard children who attend will die before graduation – but it is much safer than life on the outside.

The Scholomance's builders all hail from "enclaves" – magical palaces that have also been built in the void – and the enclave kids are the elites of the school, just as their parents are the elites of the world. Outside the scholomance, every "indie" wizard dreams of a place in an enclave, where they and their children might find a modicum of safety.

Inside the school, the indie kids suck up to the enclavers for four solid years, in the dim hope that they and their family might earn a place as second-class citizens to the enclaves. Indeed, the only reason the enclaves allow indie kids to attend the Scholomance is so that they will be servants for their own children, and cannon-fodder to stand between them and the monstrous hordes.

The Scholomance is a cross between Lord of the Flies and Harry Potter: an adult-free, highly lethal environment, where interactions between kids are strictly transactional. There is no love, nor honor – only the brutal logic of how much each person can bargain for from the others around them.

By the time I'd read the first couple chapters, I was thinking of it as Hobbeswarts, a place where life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Novik's school for wizards is a place where the supernatural is very definitely "red of tooth and claw."

Enter the protagonist, Galadriel "El" Higgins, whose mother is a legendary indie healer who raised her in a yurt in a Welsh forest commune after she graduated from the Scholomance already pregnant (El's father died in the final graduation battle for their year, sacrificing himself to save his pregnant teen girlfriend and their child).

El isn't just an indie, she's a "loser kid": one of those indies who is looked upon with contempt by the enclavers and unlikely to find a crew who will protect her through her years of schooling – let alone the lethal "graduation," where seniors battle their way through a dense cloud of malefecaria, who devour fully half of the kids who survive that far.

But El isn't an outcast because she's a weakling with nothing to offer to her social betters. Far from it: El is, if anything, too powerful – so powerful that when she casts even minor workings, they cause major damage. While other young wizards are given low-powered defensive spells by the Scholomance, El is handed apocalyptic superweapons that can raze whole nations.

El does her best to hide all this, but something shines through. She gives off the kind of "evil sorceress" vibes that make her a social pariah. That sinister aura, combined with her prickly character, quick to anger and slow to forgive, leaves her isolated through her first two years of school.

And then, as the story starts, El has a run-in with Orion Lake, the golden boy of the ultra-powerful New York City enclave. Orion is one of the school's best fighters, and he alone among the student body seeks out maleficaria to kill, leaping to the defense of weaker kids and demanding nothing in return.

After Orion defends her, repeatedly, from monsters she was prepared to deal with herself, she treats him to the kind of tongue-lashing that only an evil-sorceress-in-waiting who has spent years on the periphery, cordially loathing the popular kids, can dole out.

This is the meet-cute that begins El and Orion's journey to graduation and beyond, as they perform a kind of social magic trick that has no supernatural component, inadvertently and haltingly bringing solidarity to the Scholomance, in a kind of Rousseauvian revolution that could transform the lives of the entire student body – and perhaps the whole wizarding world.

I first read Novik's fiction last year, devouring her nine-volume Temeraire series, a retelling of the Napoleonic Wars in a world where dragons are real. The Temeraire books have it all: swashbuckling hand-to-hand combat; grand, sweeping battles; a huge cast of beautifully realized characters; a brilliantly wrought geopolitics, and a through-line that is fantastically tight, plotted to a fare-thee-well:

I had neglected the Temeraire books because I am generally not a fan of historical fiction, nor high fantasy, nor military stories, but Novik found depths in all three of these forms that I had never imagined, innovating fresh angles that transformed me into a true believer.

The Scholomance series performs the same trick. Novik's handling of the geopolitics and class warfare of the wizarding world – revealed through the subsequent two volumes as she progressively widens the tale's aperture – make JK Rowling's attempts look like they were scrawled in crayon. By a toddler.

This is true all the way down to the micro-level: Novik's thrilling innovations in high-stakes combat-school battle-tactics make Ender Wiggins look like a piker (and also makes me wonder if there's some intentional wordplay in the rhyming surnames).

And when it comes to complicating the "chosen one" trope, Novik leaves Rowling and Card so far behind in her dust, they basically disappear.

As for the cosmic horror of the void and the monsters that it spawns, Novik out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft, in a manner to rival such great post-Lovecraftian subverters as NK Jemisin:

Novik is part of a longstanding and brilliant tendency in genre that refuses to cede all the best, most engrossing tropes to racist pigs like Lovecraft, warmongers like Card, and bigots like Rowling. She wrestles these ideas out of their hands and works them, revealing the poverty of those reactionary writers' shriveled imaginations.

I read the Scholomance books as audiobooks, listening to Anisha Dadia's superb narration as I did my physiotherapy laps in the pool each day:

I was delighted to discover DRM-free editions on that would play on my cheapo underwater MP3 player:

When I finished the final book yesterday, I literally gasped aloud. As with the Temeraire series, Novik's intricate plotting manages to sprout from a small personal tale to a world-shaking planetary-scale upheaval, and nails the landing in a way that is nothing less than dazzling.




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