Review of THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL: A WORLD WITHOUT PRINCES by SOMAN CHAINANI
(review based on an advance reading copy)
In the first book in this series Chainani took a close look at good vs. evil. Now we’re back, but this time we’re looking at boys vs. girls.
At the end of the last book, Agatha gave up everything for Sophie...but now she might regret that choice. Her combination of cynicism and loyalty wouldn’t let Agatha neglect her best friend for a prince and some vague concept of happily-ever-after. Except now her mind wanders to what ifs. They’re safely back in their hometown, but home - though familiar - is no happily-ever-after.
When Agatha recklessly wishes she had chosen her prince instead, the girls find themselves swept back to the schools...well, not the schools for good and evil anymore. After Agatha ignored the standard rules for fairy tales and focused on helping her best friend instead of getting the guy, she unintentionally revolutionized the fairy tale world. Aside from all the potential discussions about boys vs. girls issues, I adore what this twist says about the open interpretation of art, especially stories. Agatha assumed she sent a good message with her chosen ending: I won’t sacrifice my friend for a boyfriend. Yet everyone still misinterprets her message in a sexist way. The problem isn’t Evil - or Good, the girls - princesses and witches alike - start thinking. The problem is boys. Boys sweep in and tear princesses away from friends, from family, from their own goals. Boys take all the credit and claim the girls as prizes. Incensed by these thoughts, the princesses kick the princes out of the school for good while the witches kick out all the male villains from their school for evil. Girls from good and evil alike band together and banish all males (including the male teachers) to the dangerous woods while every fairy tale is rewritten for a “You go, girl!” type feel that grants girls the spotlight only by shoving boys in the shadows.
As with the first book, there’s a plethora of engaging themes worthy of extensive discussion. The good vs. evil debate continues into this second book while the dynamic change invites new conversations. I particularly like the ongoing concept that everyone thinks the story is their story. Innate evilness varies from villain to villain, but most only zero in on a nemesis because that supposed “good guy” is keeping the supposed “bad guy” from their own happiness.
I frequently found myself surprised by how far along I was through the book; it felt like I had read so much less. Being a fast read serves as both a strength and weakness, though. Sometimes the story moved too fast, in my opinion, and I didn’t have enough time to buy into new plot developments or shifts within relationships. Along these lines, there’s a lot of filler in the first half. I often skimmed the pages for the actual content: dialogue, actions, developments that move the story forward rather than add ink to a page. Some of the action near the beginning felt pointless to me, like a forced effort to keep the book fast paced, too hurried and confusing to hold my attention. There’s also a bunch of overdone seesawing. By seesawing I mean when a character keeps going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in their perspective on something or someone. (I love him. I hate him. I love him. I hate him. She’s good. She’s evil. She’s good. She’s evil.) Back and forth bores me. Perhaps because character development is my number one draw towards stories, I like to see some actual momentum in how someone’s outlook changes. Seesawing isn’t genuine change.
Though I loved how the entire world dynamic shifts for this second book, one change I didn’t like had to do with Agatha. In the first book, she really grounded the fantastical, questioning accepted norms and consistently calling it like she sees it. In A WORLD WITHOUT PRINCES, she’s much more sucked into fairytale-land and this elusive happily-ever-after concept. Now she’s pining for a prince (and I never quite felt their chemistry) and rearranging her priorities. Without Agatha fulfilling the down-to-earth character role, the book felt much more far-fetched and at times frustrating for the lack of a grounding force.
A major factor in my disconnect regarding Agatha’s romance might be that I never pinned down their age. I imagined Sophie and Agatha as 12 or 13 years old, maybe 11 in the last book, but I never caught where that’s confirmed or corrected. What’s going on (both in terms of romance and violence, among other things) feels far too mature for preteens, or at the least very LORD OF THE FLIES-esque.
I don’t remember this issue from the first book, but I caught a frequent grammar issue: dialogue tags that aren’t really dialogue tags. For anyone who doesn’t know, a dialogue tag is the “Jane said” or “he shouted” added onto to dialogue to clarify who’s speaking and in what manner. Sometimes writers mistakenly add another action on at the end of dialogue that has nothing to do with speaking. Let me provide examples.
“Let’s get Chinese tonight,” Jake suggested. - This is a correct dialogue tag. “Suggested” is a verb that elaborates how Jake is speaking.
“I’m so exited,” she jumped up and down. - This is incorrect. Jumping up and down isn’t a type of speaking and, thus, shouldn’t be treated as a dialogue tag. These should be two sentences: “I’m so excited.” She jumped up and down. - or - “I’m so excited,” she said, jumping up and down.
Remember that I read an ARC, so hopefully most or all of these instances were caught before the final printing. At least in my copy, though, it happened so much that it suggested a lack of understanding about dialogue tags rather than a simple, singular slip.
I felt a little disappointed in the ending. I won’t be explicit, but still feel free to skip this paragraph if you don’t want even vague spoilers. Last time Agatha and Sophie flouted the system, but this time they give in to it. The first book’s ending also found that glorious sweet spot where it could be the end of a standalone novel or the first in a series; it both concluded and left doors open. However, this ending felt obviously unresolved. I’m curious now how many more books are to come.
I enjoyed A WORLD WITHOUT PRINCES right from the beginning, but not nearly as much as its predecessor. I worry this might be one of those series that stretches a good thing too thin. Nevertheless, I’m extremely intrigued to see what the next book will tackle and if indeed it will be as thematically focused as the first two: good vs. evil, boys vs. girls. How will this world divide itself next?