I am a Naomi Novik fan but I was dubious about A Deadly Education for the first several chapters. There’s a lot of initial info-dumping to absorb here, and El, who narrates this story, is a hard main character to warm up to. She’s defined chiefly by her snark, her anger, and her unwanted affinity for mass destruction spells. She also is frequently her own worst enemy, driving others away when it would clearly benefit her. Main characters who are prickly and rude to others and who shoot themselves in the foot with their own decisions are a hard type to enjoy.
But, the character has a natural talent for mass murder and destruction and this is offset by the way her sweet, open-hearted white witch mother raised her. These two opposing factors, nature vs. nurture, create a major tension within El’s character, making her a more interesting person as I got more into the book, and by the end I was fully on board with her character. Orion isn’t just a hero; he has his own issues, and the friendship (and perhaps more) between him and El has a tough road to travel.
While the Scholomance has a worldwide, highly diverse student body, the handling of this diversity is on the shallower end of the pool. I didn’t really get much of a feel for their different cultures, including El’s half-Indian heritage. Other than that, though, there are an abundance of marvellous details in the world building. El’s focus on language and linguistics plays a major role in the way her magical talents develop, and there are magical drawbacks to learning new languages as well as benefits. The benefits of wealth and social status are shown very clearly in who thrives in the Scholomance, or even just survives.