Naomi Novik began her series of fantasy bildungsromans, in part, because she found Harry Potter extremely irritating. What annoyed her more than anything was the lack of economic thinking that went into J.K. Rowling’s world building. “The world, when you start poking at it, doesn’t work,” she explained in a September 2021 interview with Polygon. “Magic doesn’t cost anything, right? So why are the Weasleys poor? Half of them are adults, fully grown certified wizards, all of them apparently quite talented and smart. If magic doesn’t cost anything except the time it takes to learn it and cast it, then the more wizards you have, the richer you are, right? Wizards should be trying to have all the kids they could possibly have.”
One doesn’t want to sound like a Death Eater, but the harder one looks, the more one suspects that the world of Harry Potter doesn’t hang together. Why don’t the Weasleys just magic up some new robes for Ron? Why do hand-me-downs exist in a wizarding world? Why haven’t the Weasleys, and other wizarding families like them, led a revolution? And why in the name of Dumbledore would anyone who can do magic send their equally magical child off to a school where children are regularly turned to stone, set upon by Dementors, and even killed?
“There has to be some sort of terrible reason,” Novik posited to Polygon. “It can’t just be that you want to be powerful, because wanting power is a selfish goal, and you don’t risk death to be selfish. Nobody says ‘I’m going to jump off this cliff to make myself more powerful!’ So what does drive you to a school like this?…I decided, for my story, the only possible answer was that the alternative was worse.”
For many readers, Novik’s revisioning of the “magical school” genre of young adult fiction and her thoroughgoing exploration of the idea of scarcity in a magical universe will be enough of a pleasure. And it is, indeed, a great pleasure. But the series offers more when viewed as an extended meditation on two even bigger questions: What is the right relationship between altruism and self-interest? And how should children be educated?
A Study in Scarcity
Novik’s economic preoccupations were already evident in earlier works. Her 2018 novel Spinning Silver (Del Rey) explored the themes of Rumpelstiltskin in a story set among a family of moneylenders in an Eastern European fantasy world, while the dragons of her Temeraire series have a monetary system and complex economic interests. So her commitment to creating a magic system that has costs, not just benefits, is unsurprising. What is surprising is how much a school-based fantasy world changes when forced to face scarce resources and tangle with Thomas Sowell’s observation that “there are no solutions, only tradeoffs.”
A Deadly Education, the first of the two Scholomance novels published by Del Rey so far, is a study in scarcity. It introduces readers to a school called the “Scholomance,” created in the 1800s to protect the children of wizards. Because wizard children are magical novices whose power grows faster than their skills, they are an irresistible food and power source for vicious magical creatures called Maleficaria, or “Mals.” How irresistible are they? Before the creation of the Scholomance, children who weren’t protected by rich and powerful wizard guilds, called “enclaves,” had about a 1 in 20 chance of surviving to adulthood. Inside the Scholomance, things are still grim, but about 25 percent of the class survives to graduation—though most survivors are still children from enclaves.
Students are admitted to the Scholomance for four years of study, with a strictly enforced weight allowance for personal necessities and magical items. They do not leave the school building again until they graduate or die. Graduation day is simply a mass battle between the senior class and the Mals. Students sprint for the gates, using every bit of magic they have learned, trying to escape before they are eaten. Making alliances with other students through trades of goods, skills, or protection before graduation day helps aid your chances of survival, and students who fail to make alliances get eaten first.
It’s more Hunger Games than Hogwarts. As our narrator Galadriel “El” Higgins notes, a 25 percent shot at survival is “plenty decent odds….But we have to pay for that protection. We pay with our work, and we pay with our misery and our terror, which all build the mana [power] that fuels the school. And we pay most of all with the ones who don’t make it.” Magic costs power. And big magic—like a school built to teach and protect wizard children—costs big power. Unlike Hogwarts, where feasts, celebrations, and shopping trips are constant features, the Scholomance is constantly underprovisioned, underpowered, and underprotected. It draws energy to keep going from the energy the students expend battling to stay alive. All of that means that along with building alliances, students compete—often violently—for resources.
Novik’s picture of what scarcity looks like in a world of constant violence and threat is unforgettable. We find out that students who practice dark magic or “malia” sometimes kill other students in order to gain power—and we find it out only six pages into the first book.
We soon learn that the scarcity problem this year is worse than ever, and that’s because of Orion Lake. Orion is a Maleficaria-battling superstar. With every monster he kills, he gains more magical power, which he is able to share with the other students from his enclave, fueling their magical studies and their protective wards. This sounds great, but Orion has been saving students who would ordinarily be eaten well before graduation. So as the school year goes on, the Scholomance has fewer and fewer supplies to feed and protect its students—and the Mals, who would ordinarily dine on several students a week, are wild with hunger and increasingly bold in their attacks. When the senior class starts plotting to let the Mals have early and easy access to the freshman dorms in hopes of sating some of their hunger before graduation, it’s clear that Novik’s series is unlike Hogwarts in every possible way.
If I Am Not for Myself, Who Am I?
The senior class’s lifeboat ethics are a natural result of the terrible, immutable scarcity of the Scholomance. Out on the furthest edge of survival, what do human beings owe one another? What do we owe ourselves? Novik is intensely interested in these problems, and in the tradeoff between altruism and self-interest. The focal point for these meditations is our narrator, El. The half-Welsh, half-Indian daughter of a famed healer, she is prophesied to become a sorceress of nearly unprecedented power. Tapping into that power, however, would require El to draw the fuel for her magic from the life forces of the people around her. El struggles with the knowledge of how easily she could have essentially unlimited magic if she could just resign herself to killing other students.
Resisting her destiny is made all the harder by the scarcities and dangers of the Scholomance. Matters are made worse by the fact that El’s untapped dark powers are evident in her facial expressions and general aura. People just don’t like her, so making alliances and useful trades is all but impossible. Because she is isolated, anything she does looks like it is driven by untrammeled self-interest. She has—as the story begins—no crew of friends and no allies she works to support and to save. Her full attention, and whatever scraps of mana she can pull together without using dark magic, are devoted to keeping herself alive until graduation.
Orion Lake, the school hero, is El’s apparent opposite, with his aggressive altruism positioning him as the hope and savior of a generation of wizards. But El’s status as an outsider allows her to recognize the danger he presents long before anyone else. The first book of the series opens with El thinking about killing Orion, and with her grim assessment that it’s “too bad for the losers who couldn’t stay afloat without his help. We’re not meant to all survive, anyway. The school has to be fed somehow.” And the school has to be fed because, as bad as it is, the outside world is worse.
Over the course of the series, both El and Orion come to realize the problems with their respective approaches. El begins to moderate her self-interest and to find ways to aid others while still protecting herself. This is not at all easy, and some of the most emotionally laden and powerful moments in the books are when El weighs the costs and benefits of risking herself to save others, or risking her ability to save many future students over a single present one.
Even the slightly dimwitted Orion (let’s just say his intellect would definitely not get him sorted into Ravenclaw) begins to see the problems with his “kill all the monsters at all costs” approach. El, for example, excoriates him for killing a monster hiding in a steam table tray of scrambled eggs: If he hadn’t attacked it so rapidly and with such violence, she could have gotten some eggs first and then killed the monster. When she explains that his saving of 600 lives has magnified the general scarcity of supplies, he begins to understand the problem they face. Once he finally is persuaded that El isn’t a maleficer, the pair begin to form a tentative friendship marked by a highly entertaining mutual irritation.
El and Orion’s friendship—and later romance, or something like it—becomes the means by which they negotiate an uneasy truce between the two most necessary and conflicting actions for students in the Scholomance: survive at all costs and help others survive. The push and pull between altruism and self-interest, and the constant need to recalibrate how much of which is appropriate at any given moment, make the books engaging. And they lead to an excruciating volume two cliffhanger, with the third book, The Golden Enclave, not expected until September.
The Children Are Our Future
A Deadly Education and its sequel, The Last Graduate, also force readers to think about what education is for. The Scholomance is decidedly not designed to help students experience social and emotional growth. It is designed for social utility. As El notes, “Everyone in the school could make themselves somewhat useful—that’s what all of us have been doing all four years of this, finding ways to make ourselves useful.” The students need to become useful in order to become appealing parties in alliances and trades. If you literally have to fight your way to graduation day, you want to build a team where every member contributes something of value.
The Scholomance—which seems to be at least somewhat sentient—forces students to develop that usefulness through a rigorous curriculum that centers on a magic system where spells are acquired by brute memorization of languages. The more difficult and the more obscure a language, the more valuable the spell. Additionally, the Scholomance, which has no teachers, punishes students for failing to learn effectively. A badly executed lab assignment can fatally poison you. A failed shop assignment could lead to dismemberment or death.
All this grisly darkness raises the question: If education is supposed to equip young people for the real world, would they be better equipped by Hogwarts or the Scholomance? If all these young people are going to graduate with shocking amounts of magical power, hadn’t they better be experts at wielding it? And how are they supposed to become experts without practice? Admittedly, the Scholomance has broken down and isn’t functioning correctly. Students are in more danger than they should be. But even in the nonmagical world, some of the best learning comes with at least a little bit of risk.
Novik ties this need for practical, risk-accepting education to the need for education that is aware of instantiated privilege. The students note with a great deal of irony the founding words of the Scholomance, “to offer sanctuary and protection to all the wise-gifted children of the world,” noting that “certainly not a single student ever got through a single day in here believing them. No one thought it was true.”
Children from the wealthy and powerful enclaves arrive at the Scholomance literally laden with privilege. While they are allowed to bring in only the same weight of luggage as every other student, the graduating seniors from their enclaves leave behind their possessions for incoming students to use. Everything from food to clothing to magical items to libraries of pre-written term papers is inherited by the enclave students and inaccessible to those who don’t belong. Enclave students can use these resources as an incentive for outsiders to form alliances with them. They can also dangle the prospect of getting a guaranteed job at an enclave upon graduation. The enclaves, El explains, “don’t have any reason to care about us. We’re not their children….And if we happen to be faster than their children, more powerful, then their children will get eaten….You can’t blame people for wanting their own kids to live.”
It is as devastating a picture of Ayn Rand’s “aristocracy of pull” as one could hope for in a fantasy series. It mirrors contemporary understandings of privilege and inherited wealth much more accurately than the Harry Potter series does. And Novik’s discussion of class is nuanced. Just as the enclaves are prejudiced against outsiders like El, El is prejudiced against them. It is a very difficult moment for her when she realizes that some of the enclave kids are smart and kind, not just rich. It’s even harder for her when she realizes that she’s going to end up working with and saving some of them.
I suspect the trilogy’s final installment will further explore these questions about class and privilege. Toward the end of the second book, El acquires a set of spells that will allow her to build enclaves of her own, assuming she can live past graduation. It will be interesting to see what that possible increase in the supply of magic does to the story’s economic considerations. Novik is probably too interested in scarcity to magic it away. But will creating new enclaves enable El to shake up the instantiated privileges and the stultifying class structure that cripple so many wizards in her world? And if she does, will that solve anything, or will more enclaves simply produce more dead children and more magical monsters to feed on them?
The Scholomance series, thankfully, does not appear to be moving toward a heartwarming conclusion where wizards of all classes and abilities join hands in unity and happiness. El finishes the second book much as she began the first—threatening to kill or maim Orion Lake. But the students do learn that even in extreme scarcity, where the only solutions are exhausting and painful tradeoffs, they do better, are smarter, and make more effective use of their limited resources when they work together. As they prepare for their graduation day at the end of The Last Graduate, they come to realize that “this whole term, all the endless outrageously horrible unsurvivable runs, pushing and pushing and pushing all of us to find completely new strategies, to learn to work as a single enormous alliance,” was “to defeat—whatever was on the other side.”
The series acknowledges the huge problems with a tragically flawed system, and then it insists that human creativity in conditions of extreme scarcity, a tenuous alliance between altruism and self-interest, and an education gained by sheer grit can find ways to create change—and to kill a lot of really revolting monsters along the way.