Do You Have What It Takes for A Deadly Education?

Book coverI recently gobbled up the most delicious dark fantasy book and had to share! Naomi Novik has already made a name for herself with her Temeraire series, and now has a new series that can briefly be described as the dark side of magical education. Unlike Hogwart’s, the Scholomance in A Deadly Education is a school that exists within the void, has no instructors to watch over the students, and spends most of its time apparently silently laughing as a variety of “mals” (unpleasant magical creatures) try to kill off the thousands of young magicians who are enrolled. These young students are magically inducted their freshman year with only what they can carry on their persons – popped from their world directly into the Scholomance without much warning. Afterwards, their training becomes literally a trial by fire with lessons provided by the school itself, penalties for not completing them, daily dodging of mals, and culminating with a ritual cleansing of the halls each year by mortal flame. Throughout it all, the students must work to form alliances that will help them make it through graduation, which consists of getting through the graduation hall and to the exit gates by dodging a gauntlet of mals that have been collecting there over the past year and who are hungry for a feast.

Galadriel, our protagonist, is a somewhat misathropic young girl who has struggled her whole life. When we meet her, she is beginning a real hate relationship with the school charmer, Orion Lake, who goes around showing off and saving people from mals. This is especially irksome because the use of magic requires mana, which has to be either earned or borrowed. If you’re someone like Galadriel you spend a lot of time finding ways to make mana. If you’re someone like Orion, you have a whole enclave of other magical students with mana aplenty to draw on as you choose. Additionally, there are reasons that saving freshmen from mals doesn’t benefit the rest of the student body, so Galdriel is less than pleased with this Orion dude.

Novik has created a world that absolutely sucked me in. I flew through this book and had so much fun that I’m really looking forward to the next in the series – as well as the third which is forthcoming. Novik excels in creating new worlds that are richly developed and characters that feel real and for whom you can form an attachment. If you like your magical universities with some high stakes and dark undertones, then you won’t be disappointed with this series.

Eden Shows the Nasty Side of Nature

EdenI have had Tim Lebbon’s Eden on my “to be read” list for awhile and recently had a chance to check it out. The book is set in a future where the international community has decided to form several zones across the globe where humans will no longer be allowed, essentially giving back those areas to nature in an effort to save the planet. At the point where the book starts, this situation has been in place for around 50 years or so, and the thirteen zones have become destination points for adventure racers. We are introduced to a team of racers who are about to embark on a race through the oldest of the zones, Eden. Very little is known about the zones or who has actually made it through them, since it’s illegal for humans to enter them, but there are rumors of how tough Eden is to master.

The prominent characters are Jenn and her father Dylan, who leads the group. Jenn had been the one pushing for this particular zone, and it isn’t until the group is well into their trip that they find out it’s because the zone was the last-known whereabouts of Jenn’s mother, Kat – Dylan’s estranged wife. Accessing the area is much like being smuggled into a different country, and there is a danger of being caught and killed – the rules about no humans are serious. Tensions run high as the group deals with not only unfamiliar and rough terrain, but mistrust and old wounds between the members, and the possibility that there is something more malevolent waiting for them beneath the verdant branches of Eden. (Note: Spoilers start here.)

I enjoyed the way that this book was set up. It’s almost a slasher format with the actual natural world around the adventurers working as the killer. The further that the team progresses into the zone, the more worrisome things become. They find an abandoned camp that doesn’t look like it has been there for very long, and eventually are able to ascertain that it did belong to Kat’s group. (Other more macabre finds follow, which help to verify that this is so.) The extreme amount of physical endurance needed to survive lends to the stress of their situation, and the complete absence of other humans for miles and miles around them creates an isolated, eerie, and alien feeling. All of the humans living in the area were moved out and their houses, vehicles, and belongs left behind, creating an unsettling skeletal frame for the natural growth of trees, vines, and flowers. 

The story of the racers is alternated with that of Kat, who is in fact still in Eden, but who has come across a living organism unlike any that have been found before. As the organism infects and takes her over, she becomes something both more and less, her humanity fading away as the invader takes over use of her body and she becomes simply a passenger. From her status, she is able to join the invader as it speaks to the minds of other animals and plants in the zone, and the subsequent behaviors enacted truly reflect an amoral natural state – one that humans may not have been prepared for when considering giving the earth back over to its natural designs.

As the team works its way deeper into the zone, they are attacked by predators in an abnormal fashion. A wolf, coyote, and big cat form a pack and track them, taking them out one by one, all as Kat is forced to watch from a distance through the creature’s eyes. What started as an adventure that the racers all knew would be a test of their physical and mental endurance, becomes a desperate struggle for survival, as the team’s goal changes to simply getting back out of the zone that they worked so hard to access. As Kat in her new form stalks and eventually catches up with the group, Jenn and Dylan find that the reunion with her is not at all what they had hoped for.

This book was a chiller! I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of humans taking care of nature (by creating these zones) with nature not giving two hoots about humans once it had the opportunity to take over. The name, Eden, itself presents a mental idea to us of somewhere pleasant to be, but I think that we often forget that nature left to its own devices is not necessarily so pleasant. Blood, fangs, claws, choking vines, and poisonous plants are all part of nature, too, and Lebbon uses them to great advantage in this eco-thriller.

If you recognize the author’s name, it may be because he was also behind the fairly recent Netflix movie The Silence, which also has a plot featuring nature vs. humans. If you are looking for eco-horror, I encourage you to check both of these out!