Am I late to the party for a book published in 2013?
Am I late to the party for a book that got a Netflix adaptation late last year?
But fear not! The curmudgeon has arrived, so it’s high time to bring the music to a screeching stop and stare in horror, frozen awkwardly on the dance floor, open-mouthed over your plates of petit fours, glossy hardcovers in hand, as I sharpen my pencil and make my villain entrance.
Are we in for another book rant, my lovelies?
One final time, overwhelmingly, yes.
Book: The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
Series: The School for Good and Evil, No. 1.
Genre: MG High Fantasy/Magic School
Content for the Sensitive Reader:
Some mild language; fatphobic, ageist, and sexist comments; a few instances of cultural appropriation for artistic/fashion reasons; heavy emphasis on appearances as personal value; shirtless characters, ogling of said shirtless/short skirted characters, undressed characters–all of these characters are minors, by the way; brief age-gap relationship between a 13-year-old and immortal of unknown age; mild kissing/flirting; magic, spells, discussion of “hags” and “witches,” transformation into sentient animals (some humanoid), murder of est. 12 sentient background characters and dramatic death of 4-6 named characters.
This is one of those books that I finish and want to do nothing more than rub my temples and make inarticulate noises because clearly, you’ll all understand my eloquently phrased reaction to this piece from that, right?
It’s not a great book. It’s not a bad book.
Hence the internal conflict.
First you should hear the good part.
It’s a story about friendship. It’s the story of two girls who somehow overcome their differences and teach everyone around them to look beyond appearances, to appreciate who they are and the power of choices–we are who we are because we decide. We fight for what kind of people we want to be. No matter the difficulty, we choose to do good or do evil.
And the epic battle of middle-grade students clobbering and stabbing and mud-sloshing each other in the last third of the book isn’t bad in terms of fast pace and drama, either. It has a few twists and turns to keep you guessing.
It’s got good descriptions. It’s pretty.
So what’s the problem?
Um. A lot.
First of all, it’s very, very flirty for a MG book. Can middle-grade characters notice each other and flirt? Absolutely. Are they going to do it with the fluency, confidence, and vocabulary that Chainani gives them?
Uh. Probably not.
The kids in this novel are twelve. The age a lot of kids are incredibly awkward and shy around the opposite sex, Chainani’s characters are more than ready to flirt and gawk and kiss and date, Sophie is showing a lot of skin in very modern, non-fairytale outfits (not important to the point, but still), sneaking out late at night for romantic meetings–you get the idea.
And describing boys not just looking at but slobbering over girls?
That’s distasteful at any age.
There’s a prescriptive, pawnlike aspect to affection in the novel.
Boys are a prize for the prettiest girls, and vice versa. Granted, this is meant to play into the shallow, “surface characteristics only” nature of the characters in the first half of the novel, but for most of the characters, this doesn’t change at the end. They’re all perfectly happy to go off with their assigned dates to a party, people they neither know nor like, let alone love. Not only buying into the “a relationship makes me a whole/worthy individual” toxic logic fallacy, but doing it because failure to do so results in getting kicked out of school.
Love and romance! Do it for the passing grade, kiddos!
And actually, the more I think about this, the more angry it makes me.
There’s enough pressure on kids to do well in school already. I live among the nerds, right? I’ve seen it. You want to be smart, you’ve got to be smarter. The world is an ugly, competitive place. Get the A. Fight for it like your value as a person depends on it.
Because, unfortunately, a lot of kids (and teens!) actually believe this. My worth correlates to my academic performance. And hey! Our system doesn’t exactly make it easier. There’s a fine-print implication that if you do well in school, you’ll get into college, get a good job, get a happy life.
Lies. But sure, now that we’ve got life, career, and happiness tangled up with academic performance, let’s just lump romance into the pile.
I’m not joking. Some kids become princesses in this magic school, some fail and get transformed into talking teapots. Don’t pass the class, don’t become royalty, don’t get paired with a prince of equal aesthetic success, and certainly don’t find anyone else who will love you.
Guess only the protagonists get a happy ending in Chainani’s world.
(cue bookmarkedone screaming)
Hmm. Should probably tackle the fatphobic comments.
Most of my issues with the book I’m desperately attributing to sloppy writing. Don’t misunderstand–there’s some great writing here. The beginning is painfully slow at times, yes, but otherwise, it’s polished.
I’d always prefer attributing something to an honest mistake than outright cruelty.
Like with the weird romance dynamic, the comments start as a way to hint at the character of one of the protagonists (hint: it’s pretty clear she’s awful from the start!). How to villainize your character, fast and dirty edition?
- Have her say she hates old people
- Have her dislike and actively insult/be rude to curvy/chubby characters
- …and anyone else who doesn’t fit her standard of “beauty.”
It’s a tool. It’s a foil. I don’t like it, but I grit my teeth and wait for the character development, when apologies are given and the protagonist recognizes the beauty of people as they are.
Except it doesn’t really work. There are two curvy characters clearly noted in the novel–one a student, the other a professor. The student, Dot, is introduced perpetually eating. The professor is…not particularly intelligent.
And that’s it. Dot continues to eat chocolate and be an absolute sweetheart for page after page while everyone treats her like trash, until they briefly acknowledge her surprising, good-natured intelligence at the end.
The problem? Dot’s stopped eating chocolate. As if we have to change her character to make her fit.
As for the professor, she tints her makeup to costume as a “queen of Persia” in…what honestly feels like a bad caricature with a fake accent.
Also uncomfortable is the perpetuated blue/pink, boy/girl, protector/defenseless garbage spewed at us on the Good side of the school–apparently if you want to be a good girl, you have to be pretty, sit still, and get rescued.
Are we serious?
Look, I get that Chainani is going off the fairytales he knows, the “damsel in distress trope,” but that’s not how fairytales go. There’s a Grimms’, particularly gory, where the boy dies in the beginning and his sister has to work the magic for his resurrection. Girls take action in fairytales. Sure, they might be at a disadvantage sometimes, but so is the third son, the Ashlad–
I’m getting carried away.
I think this is, again, either poor writing, or setting something up for a series and not finishing it in the actual novel. One of the protagonists even questions the foolishness of all this–but then turns around and buys into the “I’m defenseless” argument.
And when a girl does something, takes some action outside the realm of villainy?
She’s compared to a prince. As if she can’t have her own agency, as if a princess taking action, moving the story forward, is absolutely unheard of.
(screams in angry folklore nerd because did Rhiannon beat all of the knights in a horse race to be called defenseless? Did she haul grown men up a hill on her back because she’s weak?)
Oh, and let’s not forget Anadil. Cool Henchmen No. 2 student with albinism…who is referred to as “the albino,” and during a Cinderella-esque transformation sequence when ugly deformities are erased–gets “chestnut hair.”
(cue more bookmarkedone screaming)
Okay, let’s go with the option that maybe Anadil was self-conscious about her unique appearance and the spell reflected her own ideas of what a conventional beauty looks like–but now I’m in danger of fanfictioning this thing because nowhere is anything like that mentioned. If anything, just the opposite. Anadil is cool because she’s confident. Sure, Hester and Sophie call the shots, but she never crumbles like Dot does.
So why do I like this highly implausible scenario? Because, darling, then I can cleverly avoid the idea that the author would dare to imply that people with albinism are anything but the beautiful, unique, wonderful individuals that they are!
(still more bookmarkedone screaming. I think it’s getting louder)
Let’s move on!
It’s another magic school book.
Obvious, I know. But like it or not, the book is in conversation with the Harry Potter franchise.
- Same sorting into opposed houses (two instead of four)
- Same teachers absolutely useless at keeping their students out of mayhem
- Same Forbidden Forest (it’s blue this time)
- Same “gotta get a date for the Yule Ball/Evers Ball or be a loser” rush
- Same protagonist determined there’s more out there, they’re destined for greatness, they’re special
You get the idea. If you had to sum up the first School for Good and Evil book, it would pretty much be, “Hey, we know sorting houses are actually not a great way to structure education, but we still want a magic school and can’t think of anything else, so just have a book where the whole point is that they’re bad.”
Okay. We can live with that. It’s a good point, right?
And this is one point that actually gets pulled off well in the novel.
We’re all human. We all fail. We all do horrible things, even to our dearest friends. We’re joined in this struggle of life, good and bad, and in that common ground, we can be united. Our flaws can drive us apart, but they can also bring us together.
Awesome, right? Terrific thing to hand to kids. Look at your friend who’s being harsh or rude or cruel. Maybe there’s something you don’t know. Maybe your kindness can make their life better. Maybe you can make a friend.
As the hours passed, Good and Evil shared looks across the Clearing—first threatened . . . then curious . . . then hopeful . . . and before they knew it, they were drifting into each other’s sides, sharing blankets, crepes, and cherry grenadine. Evil thought it had corrupted Good and Good thought it had enlightened Evil, but it didn’t matter. For two sides soon turned into one, cheering on the Prince-Witch revolution.Chainani, Soman. The School for Good and Evil (p. 334). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The Prince-Witch revolution. Possibly my favorite line in the entire book. Two sides joined together by a symbol, by people who dared to reach for something no one said they could have, to break the rules, to risk it all.
It’s a really great moment.
And then the book ruins it.
Because right after you finish the novel, Chainani has included a note from the School Master with a sorting test. So you can find out if you’re Good or Evil. So the story can continue exactly the way it was going before the novel began, nothing changed.
Yeah, I don’t know what to tell you about this book. It’s got some heart, but I can’t excuse its moral failings, either.
You know, one of the top recommends after reading a Chainani book is a Chris Colfer Land of Stories book. And I could see that. It has that same blend of research and squishy feel of “this is a kids’ book so we’re not going to go that far. Let’s just talk about glass slippers some more!”
(rubs forehead because Grimms’ Cinderella didn’t even wear glass shoes)
It’s funny, because I can remember getting really mad about a few Colfer books. More because Cinderella isn’t a fighter, that’s not her character strength, don’t throw a plot twist in the actual final page when I don’t have the next book in my lap you evil creature, why is Red Riding Hood–that kind of thing. Aesthetic, personal preferences I can get understandably furious over.
Not usually stuff that’s going to hurt anybody.
When I think about what Chainani’s book was reaching for–you’ve always been beautiful, you don’t need to change, it’s okay to make mistakes and forgive, we all need it because we’re human–I’m just disappointed. I can’t believe the truth Chainani holds in his hands because of so many stupid lies he hasn’t cared enough to squash.
I’d rather a Colfer book that doesn’t try to have such an important moral at its heart, that doesn’t fail to achieve it by such a titanic flop.
You could have been great, little book. You could have been earthshattering.
At least you tried.