I don’t need help surviving the Scholomance, even if they do. Forget the hordes of monsters and cursed artifacts, I’m probably the most dangerous thing in the place. Just give me a chance and I’ll level mountains and kill untold millions, make myself the dark queen of the world.– Goodreads
A Deadly Education is an oddly niche book given how widely it has been marketed. While on the surface it appears to be a bit more on the YA side, the tone and content of the novel is more akin to a dark adult fantasy. We’ve seen a great deal of controversy surrounding it these past few weeks, specifically regarding its multicultural cast. Yet amidst the discussions of dreadlocks, Asian rep, and whether the main character is Indian enough, it seems we’ve collectively managed to gloss over Novik’s mishandling of rape and sexual assault in an academic setting.
In some ways, she was very close to getting it right. From a sensory and emotional standpoint, Novik’s writing is evocative and authentic. Unfortunately, the context surrounding the “assault” (a maleficaria attack described in terms of rape) leaves much to be desired. It is unexpected, jarring, and the level of detail makes little sense coming from a main character who has never previously experienced sexual violence. Novik does not engage with the experience in enough depth to provide commentary on sexual assault within academic settings as a whole; instead, she uses it for shock value.
For those who may be unfamiliar with A Deadly Education, the novel’s premise is predicated on a world in which young magic users attract maleficaria – nasty, dangerous, magical monsters. In an effort to protect their youths, the magical enclaves came together to build a school that was only just connected to reality, thus preventing most maleficaria from managing to get at them. The idea was that there would be a machine that would rain down cleansing fire in the entryway of the school at graduation time, allowing all the students to escape unharmed. Naturally, it’s broken, so now they’ve all got to fight their way out through hordes of maleficaria instead. It’s better than being outside the school where survival rate is concerned, but it’s still not a great situation.
Classes at the scholomance are structured similarly to university level classes. Each student will choose their own tracks based on their affinity, and the school itself will assign them classes and coursework. Although they’re all technically teenagers, a reader gets a sense that they’ve been aged up a good bit – perhaps they’ve grown up a little too fast what with all the life and death situations they’ve been put in, which is certainly understandable.
Galadriel, who prefers to go by El, is one of the students at the Scholomance. She’s a loaner and a misfit; her magic is particularly suited to darkness and killing, and other students are understandably a bit leery of her abusing it. Fortunately, the golden boy Orion Lake manages to see past that and befriend her. The two are an unlikely duo, but hey, I’ve always loved a good himbo boyfriend and grumpy girlfriend pairing.
Before we get into the gist of how Novik handles rape within this context, I’d like to throw out a quick disclaimer: on the whole, I did genuinely enjoy this novel. It was around a 3.5-4 star read for me, give or take. I found the maleficaria to be interesting and the world as a whole piqued my curiosity. I plan to continue the series. The portions of the novel written as an allegory for rape are a relatively small portion of it, but sadly I’ve found that they’ve bothered me more and more the longer I think on them. This may not be an issue for people who are less sensitive to this, and I thoroughly encourage you to both read and enjoy the book – but I also encourage you to think about the portrayal while you’re reading.
The following portion of this review will contain mild spoilers. It may also be triggering for survivors of sexual assault, especially if your assault circumstances involved alcohol, groping, or oral. Please take care of yourself and know your limits prior to reading further.
Within the Scholomance, the library is arguably one of the safest locations for study and relaxation. To protect the books, it has few of the vents or pipes that maleficaria use to get around. It’s a safe haven for El; she’s found and claimed an old, forgotten desk in the back and made it her own. She and Orion are studying there after class, huddled over their classwork… only to hear a distinctly disturbing disruption happening in the main seating area a few stacks away.
My train of thought got interrupted just then as Orion turned his head to look behind us, and I realized that was the third time he’d done it. I hadn’t really noticed before because that’s a normal thing to do; I glance over my shoulder probably once every five minutes, automatically. But it wasn’t normal for him, and before I could ask what he’d picked up on, he was up from the table, just leaving all his books and everything, and running back into the stacks towards the reading room. “What the hell, Lake!” I yelled after him, but he was already going.
As the scene continues, it becomes clear that the school intentionally separated El from Orion. The library slows her down, shelves shifting with each step she takes. New stacks crop up in front of her, keeping her back away from the others. Eventually, it resorts to bribery: the Scholomance coughs up a very, very expensive spellbook for her to grab. Oddly, it seems to herd her towards the group again after that… which leads her to realize that there is something very, very wrong happening in the stacks. The attack Orion ran towards was merely a distraction. She stops, turns, and comes face to face with a maw-mouth crawling out of a vent.
In the Scholomance world, maw-mouths are arguably the most dangerous of all maleficaria. They are roving beasts made of up a patchwork of faces, eyes, mouths, grasping and reaching tendrils. If you’re caught, it devours you whole and makes you a part of itself. You don’t die, but you wish you could. It is a living, oozing violation of personhood – it is our rapist.
At this point, the school has done the following:
- Distracted El’s unofficial boyfriend and protector
- Isolated El away from others who could protect her
- Introduced a rapist, represented as a strange, unfamiliar beast in the shadows.
Rather than engaging with the reality of most rape in academic settings, which is perpetrated by friends or acquaintances the victim knows and trusts, Novik has chosen to go with a sort of back alley mystery rapist in terms of setting our scene.
Next, Novik presents El with an impossible choice. The maw-mouth isn’t going for her. In fact, it’s heading in the exact opposite direction. The gears click and turn in her mind until she comes to the intolerable conclusion that it’s going for the freshman.
It wasn’t going for the reading room. It was going the other way, straight for the stairway at the end of the aisle, the one that went down from the library to the freshman dorms. Where all the youngest kids would be holed up in their rooms right now, all the ones who didn’t have an enclave to get them in at one of the safe tables in the reading room, doing their homework in pairs and crowded trios. The maw-mouth would stretch itself out along the hall, blocking as many doors as it could reach, and then it would start poking tendrils inside to pull the tender oysters out of their shells.
And there was absolutely nothing I could do to save them.
At this juncture, El has two choices: she can either abandon the freshmen and run to safety, or she can sacrifice herself to the maw-mouth. “The one and only way to stop a maw-mouth is to give it indigestion. If you rush into the maw-mouth on your own, with a powerful enough shield, then you have a chance to get inside before it can start eating you. In theory, if you manage to reach the core, you can burst it apart from there.” Her own father died to a maw-mouth; he sacrificed himself to save her mother while they were together in the Scholomance.
El chooses to try to save the others. This, reader, is where things start to become distinctly uncomfortable. Where previously the setting had seemed to imply a back alley sort of rape, the language surrounding El and the maw-mouth now seems to be geared towards an attack in a bar, or perhaps frat house. Novik describes a large, drunk man groping her until she finally gives in out of sheer exhaustion. This description comes out of nowhere; sexuality hasn’t been touched on with any sort of depth in the book prior to this moment.
I gripped my crystal in my hand and linked up to all the other ones waiting back in the chest in my room, and then I walked towards the maw-mouth. I wasn’t sure if I could really make myself touch it, but I didn’t have to. When I got close enough, it finally did put out a tentacle just for me and wrapped it around my waist and pulled me in, a horrible feeling even through the shield: a really big sweaty man with sticky hands who had grabbed me too tight and was pulling me close against his body. The mouths near me started whispering unintelligible slurred moist words like him breathing drunk into my ear, only on both sides at once. I couldn’t get away from it, this thing that wanted me, wanted to get inside me and open me up. I tried. I couldn’t help trying. It wasn’t a choice. I couldn’t stop myself trying to thrash myself away from it, to twist and fight, but it didn’t work. I was just helplessly in its grip.
And the only good my shield did for me was that the maw-mouth couldn’t quite manage to get in, yet. Like a tongue trying to push between my lips, and I was able to keep them shut, and it couldn’t get my legs open. But I’d get tired eventually, I’d have to give up. I couldn’t outlast it. And the terror and rage of knowing that I couldn’t hold out forever was the only thing that made me able to do anything else. I pushed a little way into it, and then a wave of it rolled down over my head and it stopped being anything like being held by a person, no matter how awful. It wasn’t mouths and eyes and hands, it was intestines, organs, and it was still trying to get in me, without limits. It wanted to open me up and make me a part of it, mash me up into itself, and it was the disgusting horrible wet inside of dying things, never quite getting to dead, rotting and still bubbling with blood. I started to scream, just from feeling it around me.
Given that El is not, to the reader’s knowledge, a victim of past sexual violence, this comes off as jarring and out of character at best. I cannot emphasize enough that sex, let alone sexual assault, is not a topic this book has engaged with at all (even tangentially!) prior to this segment. This is entirely out of the blue with no warning or lead in. It even plays into the stereotype that woman cannot possibly be safe on their own as soon as they’re left without a man to protect them. It’s completely out of place, both within the book and for El specifically as a character. Where did this reference point come from for her? Why is she thinking in terms of drunken men, attempting to pry her legs apart? Given this lack of preparation, nuance, or consideration to context, these paragraphs ultimately fail to do anything other than use the emotional journey and sensory experience of being raped for pure shock value. This was unnecessary and did not serve any purpose beyond creating a sense of violation and disgust.
It is almost fetishizing the experience of rape. It feels as though she asked herself: what is the worst possible thing that could happen to a woman? Ah ha! Rape! Therefore, we will compare this experience to rape so everyone knows how bad it is.
The fact that El chose to subject herself to this makes it even worse. This ties being raped in to conscious decisions to put oneself in danger. How often have young women been told that they shouldn’t have gone to that party, shouldn’t have led that man on? How often are they told that it was their own choices that led to being raped? El’s actions may have been done to protect the freshmen, but there is something very wrong with placing your main character into a situation where they either must choose to be raped themselves or to allow the rapist access to other victims who would be raped in her stead. While one might argue that this is commentary on the idea that rapists in academic settings will always find a victim, this is a particularly ham-fisted way of showing it. Novik does not explore this idea in any kind of depth, and such an interpretation would be generous.
Taking this one step further, you could argue that El is a child who was born out of rape. By sacrificing himself to be raped and subsumed by a maw-mouth in the entry hall, El’s father saved her pregnant mother and allowed her to be born. Her mother still bears a scar from its tentacle wrapping around her. Given that El’s mother is a world-renowned healer, this has some concerning implications that El may have been tainted by that experience, resulting in her affinity towards death and destruction.
El only manages to kill the maw-mouth when she reaches the darkest pits of despair. She does anything she can to make it stop – her world has become a narrow stream of horror. The spell she settles on, a short French incantation, will have one of two effects: either kill everything around her, or kill her.
Let’s take a moment to contemplate that. The only option El can think of to extricate herself from her rapist is either to kill her rapist or to kill herself. In the moment, she does not care which happens. While I feel that there is a large grain of truth to this in terms of the emotional journey a victim of violent rape undergoes, I again have to question its inclusion in this particular context. There is value to exploring this idea and these emotions, but Novik fails to put in the work to do so. The possibility that the spell could have killed her is never brought up again.
I used the best of the nineteen spells I know for killing an entire roomful of people, the shortest one; it’s just three words in French, à la mort, but it must be cast carelessly, with a flick of the hand that most people get wrong, and if you get it even a little wrong, it kills you instead. That makes it hard to be careless. But I didn’t care. Could I flick my hand properly inside here? I didn’t know. It didn’t matter. I was just doing something that came naturally, a spell that slipped off my tongue as easily as a breath, and I flicked my hand or maybe just thought of flicking my hand. All around me the horrible stuff went worse, sludging into putrescence, but that one moment of casting the spell had felt easy and good and right, so I did it again, and then again, and again, and again, just for the relief. I threw other killing spells, every one of the dozens I knew, in case any one of them would do it, would make it all stop. But it didn’t stop.
After the maw-mouth has been destroyed, Orion comes back to find her in the hall. This is a heart-wrenching moment; he has no idea what she’s been through. From his perspective, she just ran off and didn’t help any of the others battling the distraction maleficaria in the main area of the library. She doesn’t want to tell him what happened, but she also can’t pretend that everything is okay. When she breaks out into sobs, he manages to gather that something very, very bad happened while he was fighting with the others.
Here, Novik does a good job at portraying how isolating sexual trauma can be. El doesn’t want to be alone, no, but her pain is not something that can be shared or even spoken of. Her only option is to shove it down deep inside and do her best to pull herself together. I appreciated that Orion stuck by her side and didn’t pressure her overmuch. She falls into a dissociative state and is unable to properly connect with the people around her.
Unfortunately, this good portrayal of trauma is largely undone just a few pages later. Rather than exploring the aftermath of a traumatic experience, Novik has her cast a spell that involves making the choice to “put yourself right, whatever that means for you.” The spell doesn’t require any mana, preparation, or other magical paraphernalia. Given that trauma survivors generally do not have the ability to simply choose not to be traumatized in the real world, I again must question the choice to include this scene in A Deadly Education. It’s incredibly insensitive to the world that sexual assault victims have to put in to be able to function normally following their trauma. It reminded me of the way Rob Hobb magicked away Althea’s rape in her Liveship trilogy; it’s incredibly dismissive of the journey most survivors must undertake to regain their sense of self.
Orion, being the school’s Golden Boy, is naturally assumed to be the source of the spell and is given all the credit for it. El’s agency within the eyes of her peers is thus even further eroded. This offensive shorthand for emotional healing can’t even be acknowledged – after all, Novik would have to consider its implications if it were.
Naturally, someone finds out about the maw-mouth. Rather than exploring confession as catharsis, however, Novik chooses to retraumatize El by having someone confront her about it. With this narrative choice, Novik deprives El of a character arc that allows her to regain her sense of agency following the rape. Her agency and her choice to tell others is taken from her, and she’s left reliving the experience once more.
I had my hands clenched again, and I had almost forgotten Aadhya was there, and then she said, abruptly, “Did—El, did you take out the maw-mouth?”
It was like having a bucket of just-melted ice thrown all over me. My eyesight actually fuzzed out a bit, going dim: for a moment I was back inside the maw-mouth again, the horrible pulsing wet hunger of it, and I lunged for the middle of the room and threw up into the floor drain, heaving up wet chunks of my half-digested dinner burning with stomach acid. The feeling of them in my mouth made me heave again, sobbing in between rounds. I kept going until I was empty and for a while afterwards.
Following this scene, the maw-mouth is never brought up again in the novel in a meaningful way. When she sees other maw-mouths in the graduation hall, her (presumable) PTSD from the earlier incident is not explored. It has zero impact on her sexuality – by the end of the books, she’s cracking jokes with her friends about having sex with Orion without sparing a thought to the way that the maw-mouth, that drunk, sweaty man, invaded her body.
El is never, not even once, given a chance to heal on her own terms. Novik had the opportunity to create a thoughtful allegory for rape within an academic setting, but instead she shoots herself in the foot at every turn. The rape itself has context that is a strange hodge-podge of rape experiences, written to shock and disgust a reader. While she nails the invasive, grimy feelings that come alongside someone touching you in ways you don’t want, she doesn’t do anything with that beyond horrify her audience. El’s emotional journey and sensory experience during the rape and aftermath are genuine and authentic, but her opportunities for healing are stunted or removed entirely from the narrative.