Sophie cannot wait to be stolen from her village and attend the mysterious School of Good and Evil. She’s been doing everything she possibly can to prepare – an intensive beauty regime, rigorous fashion design, and of course good deeds such as befriending the town witch. Agatha has no interest in getting kidnapped, but when her best friend is taken, she just has to intervene. But then Agatha finds herself on the Good side, and Sophie is attending Evil classes…
Not sure how I missed this series for so long. Perhaps since all the main characters are so clearly white, I overlooked that the author is Indian American. But these have been fairly popular.
Chainani’s plotting and characterization, as well as his detailed fairy-tale-based world, truly impressed me. For the last few years, I have been reading a LOT of fantasy novels for young people while working on my first diverse fantasy booklist. Particularly in middle grade fantasy, by now I can often guess what is coming next. This book was gripping because Chainani managed to continually take the plot and characters in new directions while still keeping the developments believable.
I wanted to compare this book to an onion, but that would be unfair to onions. Really, reading this is more like opening one of those presents that’s actually tiny but it’s been wrapped over and over in progressively larger boxes EXCEPT you get to the end and it’s a tiny jewelry box you open to find a note indicating where your present is hidden. BUT the present is something so perfect and unexpected you can’t help but laugh joyfully.
The illustrations were great. There is a spot illustration on almost every chapter, only instead of the chapter header being illustrated, the text wrapped around the picture on the first page of each chapter. Although the map wasn’t actually super helpful (I think purposefully so, based on a certain plot point), it was gorgeous.
I was a bit confused about the intended age level, because this really could appeal both to older middle grade readers and younger high school students. The book jacket lists this as ages 8-12, although the violence and focus on romance, even if it is fairly light romance, would make me push this towards the upper end of that age group.
Parents will want to be aware that murder, attempted murder, deadly peril, cheating, lying, swordfights, transformation into non-humans, bullying, and other villany occurs. The idea of storybook love is a major theme for much of the book, so romance is definitely present. However, I did feel like effort was made to keep it at romance – no sex or discussion of sex.
Mostly it feels like an intense middle school experience (since some couples are getting graded on how they present) – hand holding, eating lunch together, awkward moments, and a few kisses. Two characters fall asleep in the same room but nothing else happens. There is quite a bit of crushing and unrequited love. At a few points characters try to force kisses either physically or magically, which is always shown within the text to be wrong.
There is one same sex kiss and strong hints at another character being gay. I felt like there could have been some indication that a transgender character might be in the next book, but it wasn’t clear enough here to say for sure. This definitely wasn’t a “clean” book between the murder and the kissing, yet I could still see this having a lot of appeal to YA fantasy lovers who want plot complexity and emotional drama without a lot of grit.
The major weakness of this book was that most of the characters are explicitly white, especially the main characters. Some characters could have been non-white, but generally the descriptions indicated white-coded features. On a positive note though, Chainani did describe the white characters rather than relying on the white default fantasy trope. He also did some interesting things with descriptors as used for both the Good and Evil sides that I’d like to delve into some other time. So although the characters are mostly white, there is some nuance here that we don’t always expect from white authors, and I appreciated those details.
If this was a standalone book I would have expected more closure with certain plot points, settings, and characters at the end, but as the start of a six book series, that can be explained. In particular, I wanted to know more about Gavaldon and hope that will be explored further in future books.
Middle and high school libraries should have this, elementary librarians may want to pre-read. Public libraries with separate YA sections will have some tough decision-making about where to shelve it. At 400+ pages with longish chapters and a significant cast, this might not be the best read-aloud, but avid fantasy fans will love it. Recommended.