Stars: 5 out of 5
This is not your ordinary magic academy book. In fact, I doubt Harry Potter would have survived past the first night in Scholomance, because he wouldn’t have been an enclave kid, but just a looser like El.
In fact, the world of Scholomance is rather bleak and unforgiving. Being a wizard isn’t something to be excited about, unless you have the privilege to be born in an enclave. Eighty percent of wizard children born outside of enclaves don’t survive to puberty, yet alone adulthood. Why? Because they are considered tasty treats for the myriads of mals roaming the world, looking for a snack. And a kid who barely started manifesting his magic doesn’t have the skills to defend themselves from the mals. So the solution was to create the Scholomance – a magical school that would also serve as shelter for those children lucky enough to be chosen to attend. They would have four years to learn and hone their skills. All they had to do was survive the graduation. Sure, people died there as well, but the survival rates were a lot higher than risking it on your own in the outside world instead.
This paints a grim picture doesn’t it? It’s also a fascinating take on a secluded magical community leaving alongside normal human population, or “mundanes” as they call them. I also loved the explanation why it was so much harder to do magic when surrounded by normal people. The idea of belief influencing the potency of spells is rather unique.
Oh, and our protagonist is no Harry Potter either. Well, scratch that. She kind of is, I guess? In the sense that she is a chosen one and has a whole prophecy about her. Granted the prophecy goes along the lines of doom and gloom and bringing death to all enclaves. No wonder she is bitter and distrustful. No wonder she is a loner who assumes the worst of people. It also doesn’t help that most of the spells she gets from the school are spells of mass destruction or subjugation, as befitted a Dark Overlord… which she desperately doesn’t want to be. Add all that, and El is a bundle of bitterness with a soft mushy core under all that armor. She is a delight to follow in her slow progression from a loner to someone who finds a purpose and even real friends.
The concept of mana vs malia is also rather unique. I don’t often encounter this conundrum in other books about magic, but if you think about it, it makes sense – you can’t create something out of nothing. So any spell you cast has to be fueled by something. Mana is the fuel you build on your own. Malia is something you syphon out of the world around you – animals, plants… other people. It’s easy to get and you can have an almost unlimited pool of it… if you decide to be evil. Of course, prolonged use of malia corrupts your soul and body, and you risk having your insides rot in the long run, but it gives you a lot of power before that happens.
I found the whole concept of Scholomance fascinating. A school with no adult supervision, no teachers, no vacations. You get in via portal and you get out four years later, if you survive the mals in the school and the Graduation. Between then – the school teaches you by providing books and classes that it thinks you might need. And don’t even think about not completing homework on falling behind on your classes. First, you won’t be allowed in the dinning hall… then accidents will start happen. In other words – you learn or you die. I’d say that staying alive is the best motivation a student could need.
I am glad I was recommended this book. Even though it’s classified as YA, and yes, it has some typical YA elements, it lacks those that I despise the most: inta-love, love triangles, and protagonists too entitled or too stupid to live. This book is smart, intriguing and you can’t help but root for the characters even if El tends to get stuck on her grievances a lot and seems to run in circles before making a decision. But she is what, 16 in this book? So I would give her some slack.
All in all, I am really looking forward to diving in deeper into this world in the next book. And I will certainly check out other books by this author.