Fairy tale re-imaginings: so hot right now. And so much fun!
The School for Good and Evil (2013) is the first book in a Middle Grade fantasy series by Soman Chainani. It follows Sophie and Agatha as they’re spirited from their tiny village and literally (I am using that word correctly here) plunged into the magic riddled world of fairy tales at “The School for Good and Evil”. Yes, a school that teaches prim and propper boys and girls to be storybook heros while the snide, brooding outcasts are trained to be villains. At least, that’s what seems to be going on, until Sophie and Agatha get put into the wrong schools and realise there are darker workings in play.
And yes, I know, I was thinking it too: Another “magic school” series? Haven’t we had enough of those by now?? Turns out the answer is: not if it’s done right. And this book knows how to keep this worn-out device feeling fresh and new.
Chainani takes the fairy tale trope of good and evil and flips it on it’s head, leaving the line between the two muddied by context and intent. He breathes depth into the clichés, giving such real justifications for the characters’ actions that I began feeling unsure of who I was really cheering for… Ok you got me, the villains are always the most interesting. BUT WHICH SIDE IS THE VILLAINS??
Although we have a love interest, or at least a fairy tale “love interest” (think the critique Frozen tried to make before falling for it’s own trap), this is a story about friendship and the ways we use friendship to serve our own needs. Also how we carelessly toss friendships aside, mistakenly thinking they’re a less important form of relationship (*cough* friendzones are not a bad thing *cough*).
Because this is a Middle Grade story, the writing felt a little simplistic, and even too bare at times. But that helps to highten the fairy tale, child-like base of the story as the plot quickly works to subvert it. I found myself drawing parallels with Howl’s Moving Castle (the book, not the movie. Though both are excellent…) but I’m not too sure if they’re stylistically similar or if I just don’t have enough experience with Middle Grade fantasy. Ugh, why does my copy of Howl’s have to be a million miles away in New Zealand??
This book has a swift moving pace but I did feel it lost itself a bit at the end of the second third, where the plot got stuck chasing it’s own tail. And if misunderstandings and characters not spilling how they really feel are your literary pet peeves, then there will be a few moments where you’ll have to remember to regulate your breathing. But pushing though these moments is definitely worth it to get to the pay-off at the end.
This is a book I really enjoyed in all it’s rollicking fun. There were a few plot points that frustrated me at times but I like the way Chainani dealt with the magical world of fairy tales and grounded it in a three dimensional story about two girls fighting to find their place and true nature.
I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next!
4 out of 5 stars