A review by kaixin
A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik

4.0

Review: (4★) I don't know why people are comparing A Deadly Education to the Harry Potter series or relating it to dark academia.

Yes, it does have students who can do magic in a magical school; yes, there are elements of academia and dark stuff like death and angst - but just calling it a 'dark academia version of Harry Potter' doesn't do this book justice.

At first blush, it seems like a clichéd YA story of a girl who has special powers and is "different from other girls", but you'll have to believe me when I say it's not. There is strong characterisation and character development, an exciting and well-paced plot and rich, lush fantastical world-building with complex and coherent magical systems. I loved the book so much that I couldn't put it down–I finished it in a day, and then promptly started on and finished the second book too. That's how good it was.

Side note: There were some people who were talking about how the book seems racist, for instance:
(a) having the main character be half-Indian yet almost ignorant about Indian culture,
(b) generalising and categorising students based on their ethnic groups, such as "the South and West Africans", "the Chinese",
(c) referring to a Chinese character Yi Liu by only her surname Liu, and most notably,
(d) evoking a somewhat racist remark about dreadlocks.

I can't speak for other ethnic groups, of course, but being a Chinese reader myself, I personally didn't think the book was intended to be racist (and I didn't feel it was racist even as I was reading it).

For (a), I do think it is valid for El to be not so in-touch with her Indian heritage because it was part of the plot point and actually something a lot of people of mixed-ethnicity, especially those who are part of the overseas diaspora experience, so to criticise it would be to potentially invalidate the experiences of these people.

For (b), while it's not completely ok to generalise people by ethnicity or any form of classification, I still don't think it was meant to be racist, because how else would you expect El/Novik to refer to various groups of students? I, for one, appreciate that Novik did attempt to create some form of diversity with characters hailing from different ethnic backgrounds and countries, and it wasn't as though these ethnic characters were just added in for the sake of tokenism, since many of them do indeed play an important role as key secondary characters and have character development and growth too.

For (c), as a Chinese myself, although I know the 'proper' (or at least, conventional) way to refer to a Chinese person would be to call their given name (i.e. Yi Liu, the same way you would call someone 'Jane' or 'Mary' or 'Tom'), and not their last name/surname (i.e. Liu), I do think it's acceptable and understandable, because one, coming from a different ethnicity, it is something that may just never have occurred to Novik, and two, even if ignorance is not a good excuse, it isn't entirely a crime or offence to call someone by their surname–in some situations, Chinese people do sometimes call each other by their surnames (for instance, a close friend or even family member may call another 'Liu' or 'Ah Liu' or 'Xiao Liu' or some other rendition as a form of an affectionate nickname).

For (d), I of course cannot speak for another ethnic group, and I acknowledge that it is wrong, but I think the point is about intention–as Naomi Novik expressed in a public apology, she never intended to make it racist, and promised to do better in her future writing.

The apology doesn't excuse the above, of course, but I am a believer of second chances and a believer of not thinking the worst of people (there are writers who are actually racist and I really don't think Naomi Novik is one of them).

I think the sincerity of Novik's apology, as well as her efforts to rectify her missteps, convinced me that she really didn't mean to make the book racist in any form or way, and I believe she can and will do better (which she indeed did, in [b:The Last Graduate|55559887|The Last Graduate (The Scholomance, #2)|Naomi Novik|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1604391810l/55559887._SX50_.jpg|86327641]–she even referred to other Chinese characters by their given names, like Zixuan and Yuyan).

We can and should provide constructive criticism, but we shouldn't judge or cancel a book/author just because of an error but rather, allow for second chances when they prove that they are willing to learn from their mistakes. Let's just enjoy the book for what it is, and not let other things detract from it.