Friday, December 27, 2013

The School for Good and Evil (Soman Chainani)

More fairy tales to wind down the year. Yay! The School for Good and Evil is the debut novel (and first in a series) by Soman Chainani. The premise: once every four years, two children are kidnapped from the town of Gavaldon by the School Master, never to be seen again, except that's not quite true. They resurface down the road as characters in new fairy tales, stories which appear in mysterious books at the local book shop. One child is always Good and one is always Evil.

Accordingly, this event strikes fear into the heart of children everywhere, with one exception: Sophie wants to be taken. She wants out of Gavaldon, and, being the beautiful blonde that she is, aspires to one day be a princess. She works hard to perform acts of charity and even befriends a gruesome girl named Agatha, who lives in the graveyard. She is convinced that they will be taken together, Sophie for Good and Agatha for Evil. Agatha is less excited at the thought of being taken, especially since it means a lifetime of misery and solitude as she becomes a villain. And on the night of the kidnapping, Sophie is right. She and Agatha get taken.  But when the School Master drops Sophie in the School for Evil and Agatha in the School for Good, they are both convinced there's been a grave error and set out to correct it.

Of course the idea of a metafiction approach to fairy tales appealed to me. It was obvious that I was going to read this book. Chainani's manipulation of our familiar tropes is excellent and often humorous; the concept of a school that creates fairy tale characters is wonderful, and his execution of that concept is equally delightful. The Evers (that is, students of Good) get Groom Rooms where they can beautify themselves in hopes of finding true love (a concept which the author recognizes as ridiculous and lightly mocks in a very smart way), while Nevers take a class on Uglification. The book is overflowing with delightful nuggets like these.

And for the most part, the characters are just as delightful. I really enjoyed Sophie and Agatha especially, but Tedros, the son of King Arthur (who is interesting for his constant fear of any woman pulling a Guinevere on him, a trait I applaud for its intelligence and maturity), as well as a variety of side players like Hort and Beatrix and Dot, were interesting and well-created.

My only real problem with The School for Good and Evil is the narration's insistent repetition of the fact that "oh no they're in the wrong schools"--Sophie and Agatha very forwardly say as much on several occasions, and the narrator gives us their thoughts on the matter repeatedly. It's frustrating, because part of the point of the story is to make us rethink what Good and Evil really are, and overly reinforcing it consistently makes the lesson feel facile and obvious. The book is, of course, geared for people aged ~10, but I feel like their intelligence might be insulted by such moral-hammering.

But it's a novel that's at times daring and always intelligent and sly. The structure and the general way the story plays out may seem a bit familiar, but perhaps even that is part of Chainani's game since he's writing about, you know, fairy tales. We know where they're going. It's the crackling magic of the tales that keeps us going.

My rating: 4/5
The School for Good and Evil on Goodreads
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