Today, I'm reviewing the awesome debut novel The School for Good & Evil by Soman Chainani!
Hardcover, 488 pages
Published May 14th 2013 by HarperCollins
Format read: Physical copy (purchased)
Synopsis via Goodreads:
This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good & Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.
But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…?
The School for Good & Evil is an epic journey into a dazzling new world, where the only way out of a fairy tale is to live through one.
So when I heard that there was a book by a Harvard-educated writer (!) coming out which explained all of the origins of these fairytales, my reaction was something along the lines of: MUST HAVE. MUST HAVE NOW.
Fortunately for me, HarperCollins kindly granted me access to an e-arc via Edelweiss. Unfortunately for me, I didn't download it before the archive date.
(I know, I know.)
So I did what any sensible person would do: I purchased an e-copy on Amazon, so I could read this and review it as fast as possible!
And now, here we are!
Things that worked:
Sophie seems sweet and innocent, with her attempts to help the villagers, her penchant for pink and her love of fairytales. Agatha loves black, hates people and never leaves the house.
Chainani introduction's for Sophie and Agatha are as distinct as day and night, but with a sly twist. Sophie's actually self-involved and self-absorbed, often thinking that she's good-hearted by improving people through criticizing their weight. Agatha actually thinks of people (and animals) in a considerate, loving manner that most people don't recognize, because her looks put them off from giving her that chance.
I loved the fact that it was very clear to the reader from the beginning that Sophie and Agatha are actually in the right schools. This made their individual journeys to their own moments of self-discovery more heartbreaking, richer and - dare I say it - far more interesting.
While Chainani never really gives us reason to doubt that both girls are in the correct schools, he also adds enough detail to show us that the two girls - and really, everyone else - does have hints of good and evil in them, and it's often just a question of time and circumstance that will swing people one way or the other.
The book opens with the village preparing for the kidnapping of the two children, which immediately ups the stakes for the characters and the readers.
After that, the plotting moves at a brisk pace, taking the time to introduce us to all of the main facets of the school, but also throwing in the occasional twist and explosive moment, to keep the energy going.
Out of all the books I've ever read about students-off-at-a-far-away-boarding-school, I would say that plotting wise, Chainani's book is the one book that gets as close to the plotting in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone as much as possible.
If I understand correctly, this is Chainani's first fiction novel. He's written non-fiction before, largely in the academic context.
However, this definitely doesn't read like a debut novel. The writing in the book flows in a way that doesn't feel stilted, nor does it have any of the loose ends that you might find in a debut book. The whole product felt really, really polished, and Chanini and his editors should be commended.
* The fairytale moral(s)
Like any good fairytale, The School for Good and Evil has its fair share of morals. The reader is reminded of classic lessons - e.g. never judge a book by its cover.
However, Chainani makes it a point not to hit you over the head with these lessons. Without giving way too many spoilers, the moral lessons of TSfGaE are unveiled in ways that are clever, entertaining and will make you think.
* Breaking stereotypes
The School for Good and Evil breaks a lot of stereotypes - most of which I'm not going to tell you, since I want you to read the book - but I especially liked the fact that the book essentially cancels out the Happily Ever After myth.
Chainani makes it very, very clear in the book that just because you think you can only live happily ever after in a specific way, you can always find your own happy ending.
Things that didn't work:
The energy in the book decreased a little bit after the competition. I think it's because the reader anticipated in seeing a fantastic showdown before good and evil, and there was a bit of a fake-out involved on that point.
After thinking about it, I don't think that there was anything Chainani could have done differently. All of elements following the competition - e.g. the ball - were essential to the story and Chainani does a good job of showing us why.
If anything, I would just advise readers to go into the book with the understanding that there are unexpected plot twists and a fake-out climax involved, and not to anticipate too much, if that makes any sense.
* The ending
The School for Good and Evil is a trilogy, but it's not that clear from the ending.
While I generally dislike books with cliffhanger endings, solely designed to get readers to buy the next book - ahem, The Hunger Games - I would have loved more indication that there was more of the story to come.
Don't get me wrong - I love the fact that there's a trilogy, I just wanted it to be more definite!
I highly recommend this book for fans of Marissa Meyer, Sarah J. Maas, Natalie Babbitt and Philip Pullman.
About the author:
As a writer and film director, Soman's films have played at over 150 film festivals around the world, winning more than 30 jury and audience prizes, and his writing awards include honors from Big Bear Lake, New Draft, the CAPE Foundation, the Sun Valley Writer’s Fellowship, and the coveted Shasha Grant, awarded by a jury of international film executives.
When he’s not telling stories or teaching in New York City, Soman is a die-hard tennis player who never lost a first-round match for ten years . . . until he started writing THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL. Now he loses all the time.