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.

The Twisted Ones: A Dark Fantasy that Leaves You in Knots

Then I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones…

This is the quote, taken originally from Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and used frequently in The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher, that has wormed its way into my brain. There is something haunting about it. Rocks don’t have faces, or at least they shouldn’t. Twisting oneself about is not a typical behavior, and just who are the “twisted ones” that are referred to here, since rocks, also, are not something typically considered to be “twisted”? T. Kingfisher tackles these questions and comes up with some answers that you may find you wish you didn’t know. The protagonist, Mouse, is highly relatable and in a situation that many of a certain age might be familiar with – she has been called home to clean out her deceased grandmother’s house. The job is going to take longer than expected, since her grandmother was a hoarder. Mouse, and her coonhound Bongo, are up for the task and only a little creeped out by the condition of the house and the contents (a whole room full of dolls in itself is a horror story), including a journal from her step-grandfather that includes long passages of quotes from a strange green book he used to possess. This is where she first encounters the information on “the twisted ones” and as she reads further through the journal she begins to question the sanity of the former occupants of the house. (WARNING: Many spoilers ahead.)

Mouse and Bongo spend their first days making friends with the “hippies” across the road, hanging out a lot at the coffee shop in town, and taking some rambling walks in the woods – which is where things start to get strange. On one walk, they encounter an “effigy” hanging from a tree – something that has been constructed partially of deer bones and skin, and partially of other things like sticks and stones. The construct has clearly been hung in the trees by someone (or something). The effigy was terrifying enough as a depraved ornament in the woods, but later that night Mouse is horrified to hear it, somehow enlivened, on the porch and attempting to get into the house. This attack by something so unreal is terrifying, but it doesn’t end there – it proceeds to continue on a nightly basis.

When walking on the other side of the property, Mouse and Bongo come across a path through bushes and branches that form a tunnel, which leads them to the top of a hill – only there shouldn’t be any hills anywhere nearby. The top of this hill is where we really get started learning more about the stones and the twisted ones. The hilltop is filled with a variety of carved white stones, similar to one that Mouse had previously seen near the house, and the atmosphere of the place seems to have a strange effect on her. The further she walks away from the entrance, the less realistic things become, and she finds herself thinking more and more about the strange entries in the journal. She begins to feel like maybe she should make the faces on the rocks, and twist herself like the twisted ones…until Bongo helps snap her out of it and escape back down the hill into safety.

Things just continue to go “downhill” from there. Bongo disappears and Mouse must engage the help of her new neighbors to track him down before she can leave grandmother’s house firmly in the rearview. The journey that is required in order to do this, though, includes returning to that strange hilltop – and beyond – and is one of the most original explorations of dark fantasy that I have read in a very long time.

In addition to the creepiness of the quotes from the green book, I found the idea of the effigies in this novel to be terrifying. The hodgepodging together of dead animal and found materials into something that could locomote and menace was terrifying. It brought to mind the Estonian film November, where a similar concept of “krafts”, constructs made of tools and other materials and then infused with a spirit, was used. In this film, as in Kingfisher’s book, the constructs also function as servants, but they are something sought out by humans and mostly subservient to them. For this reason, the overall effect is not nearly as terrifying as what T. Kingfisher has done with the effigies in her book, which are most definitely not something that humans have requested.

Kingfisher’s use of Machen’s work as a basis for her story works well. I went back and read “The White People” and while it is a disturbing piece of fiction, the expansion that Kingfisher provides for the concepts that Machen is discussing lends them more weight and reality. She effectively constructs history and rationale and detail that incorporates his ideas in what I found to be a more approachable fashion, which also serves to increase the dread and horror. There is a definite reason why this book has been celebrated and anyone with a love of dark fantasy will likely find something here to love.

More from T. Kingfisher

If you’re a fan of this type of literature, you may also want to check out The Hollow PlacesIn this book, Kingfisher uses a similar technique of inspiration from Ambrose Bierce’s classic “The Willows” to create another dark fantasy adventure. While I found this book to be a little less effective than The Twisted Ones, it’s still a fun read, and you will find a similarly voiced protagonist – and their pet – to love in this book.