Saturday, June 22, 2013

Book Review: The School for Good and Evil

Title:  The School for Good and Evil
Series:  The School for Good and Evil (Book 1 of 3)
Author:  Soman Chainani

“The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.”
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…?

Wow.  This is a hard book for me to review.  Not because the book was bad, but because I'm not honestly sure what I thought about it.  On the surface, this book is exactly my cup of tea.  I friggin' love retold fairy tales, I generally enjoy books that play with their genre, and I"m never above an enjoyable YA/Middle Grade romp. 

The storyline is clever - a school where student learn how to be fairy tale heroes and villains - and the setting is rather well-crafted and interesting.  I mean, it's not Doctor Zhivago or War & Peace (not that I've read either of those yet), but it's a fun adventure through fairy tale lands.  Nothing wrong with that. 

Let's break down the characters.  Sophie, the beautiful I-deserve-to-be-a-princess brat, is far and away the most non self-aware, selfish character in all of YA Fantasy.  I don't think I've encountered a character that inspires more loathing and disgust.  To be fair, I'm reasonable certain that's what the author was going for.  Agatha is clever,  practical and somehow endearingly self-doubting.  She isn't exactly a strong character, but she's miles ahead of Bella of Twilight fame and it's much easier to root for her than anyone else.  I guess I can't exactly complain about the characters, but it isn't exactly like watching Jean Valjean struggle and overcome.  Heck, it isn't even like watching good ol' Harry Potter find the place he belongs.

There is a certain amount of pseudo-alliances that are made and shifted throughout the story, and while overall the plot isn't exactly hard to follow, there are many scenes throughout the book where I had to wonder:  Why is this scene here?  What are we trying to accomplish?  How does this advance the story and/or characterization?  The author has certain turns-of-phrase and ways of describing a scene that convey a lot of action but left me unclear what exactly was happening.  Many of these scenes left the narrative muddy in my mind, as if I wasn't exactly sure where the book was heading.  (Another review said the audiobook is fantastic, so perhaps it's that I'm just a sloppy reader...)  At certain points, I wasn't sure that the targeted 8-12 year-old audience would be able to keep up.  Maybe it's just me.

There is "romance" in the story, and I cannot emphasize the quotes enough.  Just like any fairy tale, the romance is placed here deliberately as a plot point:  princesses must fall in love with princes to get a happy ending.  The author, just like Agatha herself, treats this as a sort of silly necessary evil, while poking gentle fun at all the characters who treat love as a graded exam.  It's there, sure, but it's not exactly driving anything. 

In the end, as the balance and line between Good and Evil bends and twists, I was excited if not particularly entranced.  I wasn't sure exactly how the book was going to turn out, but through dumb luck I had managed to guess a big reveal long before it was made in the story - and such a reveal actually raises as many questions as it answers. 

To sum up:  I rather like the idea, and the author made the characters both as reprehensible and as snarky as he intended.  The setting and setup are both executed well.  The narrative passages can get a little murky, but most people shouldn't notice it.  The ending definitely leaves plenty of space open for the sequel to be great.  As a bonus to people reading the paper book, there are pretty illustrations at the beginning of each chapter and as end papers.  I'm almost certainly going to be looking for the sequel.

4 Stars!

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