A Deadly Education, Naomi Novik (Del Rey 978-0593128480, $28.00, 336pp, hc) September 2020.
There are so many things that the multi-award winning Naomi Novik’s new book is that it might be best to start with the one thing it is not. A Deadly Education is not a Harry Potter-esque feel-good story about a school for witchcraft and wizardry. Mind, you will feel good afterwards, because it is so very good, and it does take place in a magical high school. But that is where the comparisons stop.
What this book has is a fully realized world where magic works and where three-quarters of what a person who can do magic comes into contact with wants them dead. If you are a high school aged kid, that percentage of potentially fatal encounters rises into the high 90s. That is why the wizards of a previous age built the Scholomance, a self-contained school to which mals (or creatures that feed off of wizards) have a harder time gaining access. While kids still die at an alarming rate, sending them into the Scholomance keeps more of them able to carry on the family name.
Murderous beasts aside, what can be equally deadly is a school full of high school kids who have zero adult supervision, intrinsic-to-the-story motivations to compete with each other and, well… only the fittest, craftiest, and most cunning will graduate.
Yes, a book about dead kids seems harrowing (and it is, in spots) but Novik’s light touch, dark whimsy, and sense of humor make it hard to put down. Once she sets up main character Galadriel, a third-year student whose magical affinity could lead her to a dark place, and shows the daily operations of the Scholomance, the tone is perfectly set. Add to that a story that never stops moving while always remaining focused on developing the characters of both the people and the school itself – and A Deadly Education builds momentum that can’t help but drive the reader to its end. And the end sets up the next book – this is the first in a trilogy – stunningly.
The House of Styx, Derek Künsken (Solaris B088HGQQ2G, $8.99, eb) August 2020. (Solaris 978-1781088050, $27.99, 500pp, hc) April 2021.
The House of Styx by Derek Künsken marks the beginning of what promises to be an immersive harder science fiction series about the French-Canadian settlers of Venus in 2255. I know, it’s a story you’ve heard a million times.
Of course, I kid. The bones of the story are those you are familiar with: a stratified society struggles against a planet that wants to kill them. Some of the solutions to these struggles demonstrate the malleability of the human spirit and the dexterity of the human brain. Others are less noble and more maladaptive, showing that human prejudice won’t stay behind on Earth, should we ever leave.
It’s the details that make The House of Styx such a wonderful read. Künsken’s characters don’t come straight off the rack at the character store – and their unique qualities drive the action. Take Pascal, a 16-year-old who has grown up surrounded mostly by his stubborn father and younger siblings. When he and his dad make a discovery on the planet’s surface – and the dive through the clouds is as harrowing as you’d anticipate – what they choose to do with that information feels like the only choice these specific characters could make. As the older siblings who live higher in the clouds and in the circles where real power is held get involved, their responses stem from who they are, rather than what the plot might dictate.
Beyond the skill with which Künsken assembles the hidden story machinery like character and plot, what makes The House of Styx feel so fresh are all of the Venus-specific science-fictional gee-gaws he adds. He turns what should be a hot and acidic hellscape into a place where people have learned how to live, despite the fact that the planet keeps trying to kill them. While there are places of safety, like the bioengineered trawlers where the more adventurous live, most of this world is made of danger. The interplay between inside, human-made forces and the cruel, outside world makes for an extra layer of narrative energy.
While The House of Styx finds an ending of sorts, it’s clear that Künsken’s longer story is just beginning.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
This review and more like it in the October 2020 issue of Locus.
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