Monday, June 23, 2014

THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL


Review of THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL by SOMAN CHAINANI
(based on a review copy)

I loved, loved, loved this book. A premise revolving around stereotypes made me hesitate while also wanting to take that chance. At worst such books lazily reinforce our existing assumptions and judgments, but at best stories that play with stereotypes can burst forth from their constricting labels into something gloriously innovative. I’m almost giddy to report that THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL does the latter.

As the title implies, this novel features a school for, well, good and evil. Students are either trained to be good heroes or princesses or evil villains. Most of these students come from familiar story tale backgrounds, bred and raised for either good or evil. However, every year the School Master selects two students from the world outside fairy tales and fables, two students everyone else refers to as “readers”. One goes to the school for good and one to the school for evil.

Enter our two leads, who at first glance do present themselves as preprogrammed good and evil stereotypes. Gorgeous but dissatisfied Sophie wants nothing more than to be selected by the School Master and whisked away to the magical, mysterious school for good where she can break away from her mundane life, become a beautiful and beloved princess, find her prince, and live happily ever after. On the other hand, her best friend Agatha spurns both the ridiculous fantasy of some shady stranger kidnapping children for predetermined destinies and all things princess, prince, and pink. Contrary to her sweet daydreamer of a best friend, Agatha prefers black, graveyards, and dirt. She’s crude, she’s rude, and she wants nothing to do with Sophie’s silly princess plans let alone some school for villainy.

Of course, the School Master selects Agatha and Sophie. However, the first big twist (which the back of the book gives away, anyway) comes when Agatha finds herself at the school for good and Sophie the school for evil. This arrangement appalls both girls. Sophie wants to switch while Agatha wants to go home, and everyone’s saying neither option is possible.

In the grand tradition of dramatic irony, the reader picks up far earlier than the characters that this is no mistake. Agatha might be a little rough around the edges, but she has a good heart. She looks out for Sophie even when her friend might not deserve her loyalty. For that matter she looks out for everyone, quick to challenge school teachings that imply any student deserves more or less than another. The school for good promises Agatha beauty, love, and happiness eternal, but all she wants is to go home and she’s not leaving without her best friend. Sophie meanwhile has no intention of leaving. She doesn’t want to be in the school for evil but she doesn’t want to go home either. She knows what she does want and she won’t let anyone, even a friend who has been nothing but devoted and dependable, stand in her way. Sophie thinks her beauty entitles her to whatever she wants and even her kinder acts have a condescending undertone like she’s mimicking compassion as seen in a children’s book but doesn’t actually care.

In this manner, Sophie actually morphs into a spectacular, dynamic villain. She’s filled with bitterness, self-righteousness, and a sense of injustice. Whether she meant to or not, Agatha took what Sophie thinks she deserves, what Sophie wants more than anything else.

Many big twists are predictable and yet I don’t mean that as an insult in the least. We might know that Sophie and Agatha will be selected and we might know they’re not going to the schools they would expect (among other easy predictions), but Chainani makes every sentence leading to those developments engaging and roots each new turn of events in character and heartfelt emotion. I often saw something coming, but that only made the event all the more affecting because my knowledge still didn’t give me any power to stop it. Agatha and Sophie are trapped in a story, both desperately trying to rewrite their own endings.

I’m surprised this is a middle reader book, though, since it’s significantly dark! I’m not one to say what kids should or shouldn’t read, but thematically speaking this struck me as young adult at least with a lot of crossover appeal for many adults. Not only does the book contain mature themes (which some kids can handle), but a lot of metaphors, observations, subtexts, and jokes seem written for an older audience. At the very least, I think it’s a little mis-marketed with a way too cutesy cover for the story inside. (I think the cover’s striking, just not fitting for the tone.) Someone recently pointed out to me that though R.L. Stine’s books terrify kids no one ever dies. Well, people die in THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL. Children die. Violently. Children murder, too. Viciously. None of this made me like the book any less, but I think it’s better suited for mature readers (whatever their actual age).

As you might guess from my review so far, this book explodes with discussion possibilities. There’s the fact that everyone in these schools recoil from “readers” since they have a tendency to ignore their assigned fates. There’s how pure good and pure evil are treated as yin and yang ideals while anyone who exhibits a mix of good and evil inclinations suffers for their inability to pick a side. There’s Sophie’s insincere charity contrasted with Agatha’s tactless heroism. There’s the rule that princesses automatically fail if a prince doesn’t ask them to the ball while princes can choose to simply go alone. There’s the association of beauty with good and ugliness with evil. I could easily go on and on, but some topics emerge much later in the book and I don’t want to spoil anything.

THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL starts well and only becomes better and better with each turn of a page. The plot’s a multi-tiered, complex organism with dozens of emotional high points. I’m so glad I already have the second in the series!

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