Goodreads: The School for Good and Evil
Series: The School for Good and Evil #1
Every four years, two children disappear from the village of Galvadon, whisked away in the night by the School Master. The villagers believe the children attend the School for Good and Evil, where one child learns to become a fairy tale hero and the other a fairy tale villain. Sophie longs for the day the School Master comes to take her away to attend the School for Good, where she will wear beautiful gowns and meet her own prince. She assumes Agatha, the weird girl who lives by the graveyard, will become a witch. But when the School Master comes for the children, he drops Agatha in the School for Good and Sophie in the School for Evil. How can Sophie correct this mistake and end up where she truly belongs?
A School for Good and Evil plays with the tropes of fairy tales, introducing readers to a world where children are marked as “good” or “evil” and sent to school to learn the skills and attributes appropriate to their category. Informed that they are chosen for the state of their souls, the children naturally wonder if no one truly has a choice. Readers will wonder even more, for it is obvious from the start that the School for Good is full of vain, petty, catty, and dishonest individuals. The School for Evil, meanwhile, is certainly full of hideous children who speak of their desire for vengeance–but some of them are more loyal friends than the princes and princesses in the School for Good! Where are the lines drawn between the two–and who decides?
Complicating this set-up is Sophie, who fervently believes she belongs in Good because she is beautiful. Yes, Sophie is vain, stuck-up, shallow, and incredibly selfish. She uses people to get what she wants. But does that make her evil? The book juxtaposes her with Agatha, who ostensibly (according to Sophie) was placed in the wrong school because she likes black, seldom smiles, and likes morbid things. But one cannot really question her placement. Agatha is obviously an honest, loyal person who would sacrifice herself for others. Yet her virtue is shaded by her willingness to cheat, break the rules, and lie to try to save Sophie and get the two of them home.
The book does not address all these issues as directly as I would like, but it does raise them, and it gives the book depth even as readers can delight in all thing fairy-tale that Chainani inserts for fun–he seems enjoy coming up with magical creatures and spells to fill his world. Issues of gender roles are also raised, as Agatha chafes against the Etiquette and Animal Speaking classes she must take while the boys learn sword fighting. No wonder princesses need to be rescued, she thinks–no one teaches them how to defend herself. And then she muses that the villains of all people seem to make no such gendered distinctions! (I think this is not to say that only villains eschew gender roles as the text repeatedly plays with these roles and shows Agatha as a subject with agency who is willing to fight and get dirty for what she thinks is right. She even gives orders to the princes, much to their dismay.)
Some of the messages in the end seem a little mixed–is Sophie evil or just a product of her environment? Is Tedros a worthy prince or really kind of pompous and insecure? Are any of the Good characters really that good? We don’t see them do much right and when they do do things, it seems to be for glory and vanity–but aside from some exasperated remarks from the professors, no one questions this and the balance of the world between Good and Evil remains intact, so…the school placements are correct? Or does it even matter who is placed where as long as the numbers work out?
I’m hoping the sequels will delve more into this questions of morality and the questions of gender. I think the books can work more with both, especially interrogating the way fairy tales do tend to rely on gendered stereotypes. Will the characters accept or subvert them and why? What are the possible repercussions of each? Maybe the sequels will disappoint and again address issues only obliquely, but I am invested enough in this world to give the sequels a try.