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Literature / The Scholomance

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The Scholomance trilogy is a Dark Fantasy Coming of Age series by Naomi Novik.

The series so far consists of A Deadly Education, with a sequel, The Last Graduate slated for release in July 2021.

A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets.

There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere.

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El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.

The Scholomance contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Ambiguous Ending: At the end of the first book we are left uncertain if the plan to fix the scouring equipment worked, saving the graduating class, or if it failed and only succeeded in riling up the mals, dooming the graduating class and potentially endangering the entire school in the year to come.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: El's affinity is for death and destruction, which the school is more than happy to nurture and indulge. This does lead to certain drawbacks when she's trying to do more mundane things, such as find spells to clean her room or create water from thin air.
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  • All the Other Reindeer: El's powers give off some kind of aura that appears to make her feel wrong—people naturally dislike her without really knowing why. It would be Bullying a Dragon, but she takes pains not to use her Person of Mass Destruction powers and nobody knows about them.
  • Bad Powers, Good People: El, with the help of her mother, has gone to great lengths to avert the other trope, to the point where it practically defines her as a person, as much as it chafes sometimes.
  • Balance Between Good and Evil: According to the Principle of Balance, anything magical that upsets things too much will cause a countering effect. A coven of evil wizards kills a thousand of their classmates? The next year an evil wizard slaying hero is born. An unparalleled beacon of purity and goodness is selflessly helping all who come to her? Her daughter is prophecized to cause mass destruction and havoc.
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  • Bavarian Fire Drill: This tactic works surprisingly well on the mals in the Graduation Hall.
  • Bizarrchitecture: The Scholomance's layout is only possible because it was constructed in a pocket dimension. Notable features include floors spaced a 15 minute walk apart, plumbing and air vents wildly miss-sized for their apparent needs, and walls and ceilings made of a featureless void that drives those who enter it mad.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Magic requires a fairly strong expectation that it will work to be used reliably. As you might imagine, trying to use magic around mundanes is a losing prospect. The only bright side is that this also applies to the supernatural abilities of mals.
  • Complaining About Rescues They Don't Like: This is how the book starts and is a recurring theme throughout. Oddly enough, it actually helped El's and Orion's friendship get started, since it was clear from the start she wasn't interested in cozying up to him just for a bit of extra safety.
  • Crippling Over Specialization: Any strong affinity has the potential to become this, but Galadriel's takes the cake. Hers is so geared toward dark magic that she can't take the normal shortcuts everyone else has access to without risking killing everyone around her.
  • The Dark Arts: Pulling malia, aka mana contained in living things. The more complex the organism, the greater the potential source of power, and the greater the risk of rotting from the inside out and dying horribly.
  • Defusing the Tyke Bomb: Gwen has spent most of her daughter's life teaching her how to be a moral person and not abuse her natural affinity for dark magic. So far it seems to be working.
  • Destructive Savior: Orion has the bad habit of acting before considering the consequences of his actions, especially how inconvenient the aftermath will be. Given that swift action is usually justified to save lives, no one is too upset about the clean up... except when he does it in the lunch line.
    • He's also indirectly responsible for the climactic conflict of the book. Turns out he's been so effective in his time at the Scholomance that the school population is getting above capacity and kids are starting to go hungry. To make things even worse, this also applies to the mals. Without a steady trickle of mana to sate them between graduations, the larger mals are starting to come up themselves and wreak havoc.
  • Embarrassing First Name: El is short for Galadriel. As someone who grew up in a British hippy commune, she's heard all the jokes.
    Just think about the 'love me and despair' version.
  • Everything Is Trying to Kill You: Between the horde of mals and the school's deliberate efforts to prey on the unwary, it's no wonder three quarters of those who enter die.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Anyone who specializes in pulling malia will inevitably end up as one.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Getting eaten by a mawmouth. No one's sure exactly what happens, but it's thought that the victims don't actually die, they just give up after awhile and stop screaming.
  • Food Chain of Evil: Mals don't have a problem eating each other and over time a fairly stable evil ecosystem has developed around the school. Normally, small mals that can get through holes in the school's wards will be responsible for most student deaths and act as the bottom layer of the food chain. Those mals then get eaten by larger ones, and so on and so on, until the mana eventually makes its way to the hoard in the Graduation Hall. This slow but steady trickle of energy keeps the larger mals sated in between graduations when they can gorge themselves on the leaving students. This had been working... not wonderfully, but more or less stably for a few hundred years until Orion showed up and killed all the mals he could find.
  • Friendless Background: El and Orion. It's just about the only thing they have in common, even if their reasons for it are very different.
  • Genius Loci: While the exact degree of intelligence is up for debate, there is something in the school's design that lets it judge circumstances and change itself to suit the needs of the moment... however it might see them.
  • Growing Up Sucks: In addition to the normal unpleasantness of adolescence, sorcerer children have to contend with monsters that think they would make a delightful snack.
    • This trope gets put to use by the Scholomance as a way of generating power.
  • Hunter of Monsters: Orion's affinity and temperament make him ideally suited as one. He is even able to pull mana from his recent kills.
  • If I Wanted You Dead...: After El, well, made it clear to him she could drain him of his magic and life like a proverbial juice box at will; Orion started freaking out. El then noted that they had gone to a store-room alone together less than an hour ago and her coming back alone would not have raised any suspicion if she were a (practicing) maleficer that felt like being subtle instead of clearing out the whole school. It did not help.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Gwen Higgins, El's mother, is famous for her healing and protective spells, her generosity, and her near total refusal to commodify her talents and abilities.
    The one thing [my mother] will never go for is the lesser evil.
  • Magic Is a Monster Magnet: The entire reason why the Scholomance exists is to give its students a fighting chance of seeing adulthood without getting eaten by a passing mal. The survival rate for students without an enclave might only be around 1 in 4, but that beats the 1 in 20 odds of anyone not lucky enough to get in.
  • Malevolent Architecture: Downplayed - most of the time it's more like Obnoxiously Inconvenient Architecture. Being built in a pocket dimension makes the school's layout somewhat suggestible, and one of the easiest ways for the structure to reinforce itself is to make sure the students focus on how miserable it is to get from place to place.
  • Mysterious Parent: Invoked. El is very set on keeping her relationship to her mother a secret from her classmates.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Orion's one man quest to kill every mal in sight has been so successful that the mals in the graduation Hall are starting to starve and have decided to try their luck at breaking into the school.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: A fairly transparent attempt to get Orion out of the way of the senior class's plans quickly transforms into a feasible plan to fix the mal scouring equipment in the Graduation Hall, potentially saving everyone for years to come.
  • Not So Different: Orion is no more happy about being defined by his mystical talents than El is, and in his own way is just as anti-social.
  • Not the Intended Use: Given the nature of the spells the Scholomance throws at her to learn, El is obliged to do this a great deal. Need a high-pressure environment to properly cast a magic mirror for a project? Some Roman composed a way to efficiently crush a pit full of sacrificial victims to paste and it works like a champ if your Latin's good.
  • Odd Couple: Galadriel and Orion. She's an independent loner who lives in a yurt in the middle of nowhere and whose magic is trying to make her the most vile dark wizard in living memory. He's an enclave kid whose mother is next in line to lead the most prestigious enclave in the world and whose magic makes him an ideal dark wizard/monster slaying hero. Just about the only thing they have in common is wishing people would judge them for themselves and not their preconceived notions of what they are.
  • Person of Mass Destruction: El.
    Spells that only affect one person at a time are a bit beneath me.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: The Scholomance is powered in part by the collective misery and gruesome deaths of its students.
  • The Prophecy: We don't get the specifics, but apparently there is one about El that is so terrifying it causes an entire family of Actual Pacifists to think killing a 5 year old is acceptable.
  • Rescue Romance: Actively defied by El when it comes to Orion, literally since the very first sentence of the series. Not that the rest of the school will believe her.
    I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life.
    • Played straight by Orion at the end of the first book when El saves him from mortal flame. El is not amused.
  • Safety in Muggles: The best bet for anyone not lucky enough to get into the Scholomance is to find the largest concentration of muggles they can and stay there. The collective disbelief of normal humans might prevent magic from being used reliably, but it also negates the majority of a mal's powers.
  • Teenage Wasteland: Averted. Despite being entirely made up of kids aged 14 - 18 with no adult supervision, things generally stay civil in the Scholomance. It helps that the school is dangerous enough on a normal day that no one is particularly eager to add fellow students to the list of things openly trying to kill them. There still might be students secretly trying to kill them, but they're more of an occupational hazard.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Orion and El settle into this dynamic fairly quickly. It gets to the point that Orion's first reaction to El being overtly nice to him is to ask if she's mad at him.
  • What You Are in the Dark: El's decision to go after a mawmouth on its way to the first year dorms, rather than show off to the enclave kids during a mass mal incursion firmly cements her status as Bad Powers, Good People.
  • Willfully Weak: El is a strict mana user, because if she ever risked tapping malia, even on the fry-insects-or-rot-out-wood levels only absolute saints think twice about, she likely wouldn't be able to stop herself from killing everyone around her.
  • Wizarding School: The Scholomance is a much darker take on the trope than the average, but is in line with the real life legends about the Scholomance.
    • Given the in-universe timeline, the Scholomance the book is set in took its name from the legends, rather than being their originator.
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