This is a take on the YA wizard-school genre, and it is brutal. In this world, as young wizardly people (my terminology) enter adolescence, their powers awaken, and they become attractive to horrible monsters that want to eat them, yadda-yadda. The wizard-folk who survived to become robust adults decided the best solution to this problem is to lock all the children in a magical school suspended in a magical void while they go through this transition. The school has, naturally, become infested with horrible monsters who devour a significant proportion of the students before they graduate. This is the setup, and it already begs many questions, only some of which are answered. My favorite being, “Why, exactly?”
Novik’s magic, while not as palpable as in Uprooted, is still rich with feeling and intuition. She sets up a plausible system and economy of mana; having enough power in reserve is a matter of life and death for the students. This resource scarcity is reinforced by the social classes: haves and have-nots abound. The “horrible monsters” are suitably horrible; often remaining mysterious and not well understood or even identified in some cases. This is a deep and hostile world, and survival is always the first order of business.
Where this story falls down is on the old standard “show don’t tell”. The story is related first-person by a student (a delightfully clever character) who spends a lot of time… telling. There is a huge amount of exposition. A world like this needs some setup, but after a while, you start to wonder when the story is going to start. The story has, in fact, already started, but the setup never stops; every point is explained for our benefit. Even when describing simple happenings, the narrator cannot stop inserting themself and their interpretations into every scene. The constant exposition pushes the action back. It is like watching a movie with a person who keeps pausing it to tell you what they think every thirty seconds.
The world-building is solid; Novik has a knack for balance and conflict: nothing is easy, but anything feels possible, for an appropriate price (did I mention that protagonist). The only doubts I had were with the decision making. How could this school that runs on the blood of children be the best solution? Where are all the adults anyway? For all the exposition, it feels like there’s something fundamental that I missed. Whether I did or not, I am going to pick up the next volume. Even if it provides no additional answers, I am sure it will be entertaining.