The School for Good and Evil by Soman ChainaniSeries: The School for Good and Evil, #1
Published: 2013, HarperCollins
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
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Here in the Good Towers, the boys went off to fight with swords while girls had to learn dog barks and owl hoots. No wonder princesses were so impotent in fairy tales, she thought. If all they could do was smile, stand straight and speak to squirrels, then what choice did they have but to wait for a boy to rescue them?
Well, I did it. After months of hedging, I finally decided to read a book aimed towards a middle grade audience. And you know what? I enjoyed it overall.
Once a year, the inhabitants of Sophie and Agatha’s town spend the night in fear: the children in the fear that they’ll be taken away by the mysterious School Master to train at the School for Good and Evil, the adults in the fear that one of their own children will be taken. All people, that is, except for Sophie. Sophie cannot wait to leave her tiny town of Gavaldon behind and become a princess. She’s essentially been training for this role all her life, even taking on a “charity” case through her friendship with Agatha, a strange girl who lives in the local cemetery.
Sure enough, Sophie is one of the two children taken away by the School Master this year; Agatha is the other. But then something happens that neither girl expects: Sophie is dropped off at the School for Evil and Agatha is dropped off at the School for Good. Both of them cannot believe that this is anything but a mistake, and Sophie in particular is willing to stop at nothing in order to ensure her “happily ever after.”
In The School for Good and Evil, fairy-tale lore has been reimagined. Cinderella? Hansel and Gretel? Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk?” All of the characters from these tales first trained as students at the School, and their rankings determined whether they ended up as heroes, sidekicks, villains, henchmen, talking animals, or more. I really enjoyed the idea that fairy tales are constantly evolving and sentient to some degree. Also noteworthy is the fact that the fairy-tale readers of the world are the ones who possess the ability to affect or alter them. Sophie and Agatha quickly learn that they’re different than their peers: they’re referred to as the Readers, the pair of average humans who have not grown up with any fairy-tale heritage. And that makes their roles the most important of all.
The tropes that Chainani initially uses to describe the students of the School for Good and the students of the School for Evil are problematic. Good is always beautiful. Evil is ugly and never wins. Evergirls (Good females) are always the princesses, relying on the Everboys (Good males) to save the day. That’s kind of the point, though. Chainani’s story must first work within the established conventions before turning them upside-down. But readers should be aware that he does use the text to examine these tropes quite thoroughly, primarily through his two protagonists and narrators: Sophie and Agatha.
Most endearing is the novel’s focus on Sophie and Agatha’s friendship. Their friendship started off on the most superficial of levels, as Sophie counted Agatha among her many good deeds that would lead to acceptance at the School for Good. But their relationship evolves into something much more meaningful. Through Agatha, Sophie has someone who accepts her as she is, regardless of whether she’s spent enough time managing her appearance. Through Sophie, Agatha has a friend who can look past her quirks and value her character and intelligence. Of course, their friendship is run through the gauntlet time and again at the school, and many times I felt as though Agatha deserves better than Sophie. Agatha is kind, modest, and studious against Sophie’s snide arrogance. Still, it is through their support of one another that the girls are at their strongest.
I will say the novel’s ultimate messages about Good and Evil are a bit lacking, however. Sophie and Agatha very much defy their respective schools’ expectations for the majority of the novel, even encouraging their classmates to reconsider their participation in stereotypes. By the end of the novel, though, some of the power that each girl holds in her unconventionality is called into question, unfortunately. For now I am holding out hope that this is something Chainani will address and further explore in the sequels.
Rarely ever do I mention the length of a novel from the perspective that it’s too long. I love longer novels; I love having the opportunity to become swept away in the stories I read. Nevertheless, at times The School for Good and Evil felt unnecessarily long. There are so many scenes that describe the new lives and challenges that Agatha and Sophie face, and not all advance the plot. This is one example where a story may have benefitted from some more stringent cutting, especially since this is part of a longer series.
While I am not satisfied with the apparent theme reversal at the end of The School for Good and Evil, I cannot deny that I had a lot of fun reading this. After all, who hasn’t had at least one daydream of what it would be like to become a hero--or a villain?
Rating: 4 stars