The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
At work, I’m often in the young adult/middle grade alcove, shelving. (“I’m always in here, moving books slightly to the left,” isn’t just an Eddie Izzard punchline, it’s my life.) As you can imagine, it can be a messy section (although nothing matches the mountains of unshelved books left on the big table in our children’s room for me), so there’s plenty of work for me to do. While we’re forbidden to read on the floor, I do flip through the odd book or two before I put them where they belong, which is how I found The School for Good and Evil. Intrigued by the cover art (because I will never learn), I found myself reading a passage wherein a character is taunted by fairy tale characters for being a Reader.
As an aficionado of the art of adaptation (or, in more common parlance, a fan), the faintest whiff of metafiction has me bounding over the hills towards it, baying like a hound. I enjoy fairy tale adaptations, obviously, but this was one that, apparently, explicitly tackled the fourth wall. I see this so rarely in children’s fiction, let alone middle grade fiction, that I just had to investigate.
Darkly muttering Agatha and threateningly perky Sophie are, against all odds, best friends in the small town of Gavaldon. Every year, two children from Gavaldon are kidnapped, whisked away to the titular School for Good and Evil, and turn up in fairy tales. Parents do everything they can to protect their children, but Sophie is determined to rise above village life and become the princess she was born to be. When the kidnappers come, Sophie goes with them—and so does Agatha, determined to protect her best and only friend. Once at the school, however, Agatha is sent to the School for Good and Sophie to the School for Evil. Infuriated, Sophie is sure this is a mistake—but everything they do to prove it wrong only proves it right.
The School for Good and Evil starts off promisingly enough—it’s a story about two best friends, one of whom is an ambitious femme who will stop at absolutely nothing to get what she wants. As someone who shades hard femme, I was really intrigued by Sophie. Femmes so rarely get to be honestly threatening in mainstream media, so I was looking forward to the story about a little princess who realizes that she’s destined to be the greatest Evil Queen of them all.
But as soon as Sophie begins to succeed at being Evil, she becomes erratic, jealous, and obsessed with Tehros, the son of King Arthur, since she’s convinced that he is her One True Love. Since villains can’t love, getting a True Love’s Kiss from him will prove that she’s not Evil and that they deserve to either switch schools or to go home. (Sophie and Agatha are not terribly concerned about proving there’s a middle ground; Agatha just wants to go home and Sophie wants her fairy tale ending at any cost.) While Chainani feints towards actually deconstructing a system that forces girls to rely on boys for protection, it usually just ends up with Agatha being angry at her classmates for being so shallow. (And for a novel that talks about inner beauty, apparently doing evil deeds literally makes you ugly. Attractive villainesses from fairy tales are ignored.)
The humor is too broad and occasionally shades towards cruelty—the sweetest Evil character, Dot, is often mocked for her size. The worldbuilding is pretty wobbly as well. While Gavaldon is presented as a pretty typical European fantasy town, the School for Good and Evil feels… well, it feels like Ever After High, which, like Monster High before it, gets a lot of mileage out of overlaying a theme over contemporary high school and generating as many puns as humanly possible. (We’ll get to Ever After High: Storybook of Legends soon, since it’s another fairy tale retelling that explicitly questions the fourth wall.) That’s a fine tact to take, if you keep it consistent throughout, but the School of Good and Evil wants to be both silly and epic, and never manages to make these two elements work into a cohesive whole. It’s quite repetitive, slapstick, and remarkably violent. I mean, Sophie murders someone during the novel, and this doesn’t seem to be a big deal for her or the narratives—either the fairy tale narrative she’s found herself in or the actual narrative of the novel.
And yet, there are one or two interesting elements here. The Reader exchange I stumbled onto at work is part of a larger story that is, unfortunately, mostly implied here. The School for Good and Evil is the first installment in a trilogy, which will surprise no one. But there are Readers and then there are the fairy tale characters themselves, and Gavaldon appears to be the only village of Readers left. As Readers, which is to say as those who can see outside of the system (no matter how much Sophie subscribes to it), Agatha and Sophie have the power to subvert the rigid roles assigned to not only Good and Evil, but women and men. And that’s how the novel ends—Agatha and Sophie finally subvert the fairy tale they’re in by kissing. Since the system doesn’t allow for any queerness, be it girls kissing or Good and Evil being friends, they’re immediately sent home (via magic, not their teachers).
I sincerely doubt Chainani is going to maintain this thread throughout the series, even if he does set up True Love’s Kiss as the only way out of the fairy tale and, therefore, implies that that is what that kiss was. The two immediately reaffirm that they’re friends afterwards and the cover to the next book features Tehros. But a queer True Something’s Kiss in middle grade fiction is a queer True Something’s Kiss in middle grade fiction, you know? A proper queer romance would be preferred, of course, but every step helps. (Gosh, I can’t even think of any middle-grade fiction that features queer characters. Suggestions? Recommendations? Fix this gap in my knowledge!)
Bottom line: The School for Good and Evil’s wonky worldbuilding, too broad humor, repetitive narrative, and astonishing violence make it a clunker, but Chainani at least starts poking at the fourth wall and ends up queering True Love’s Kiss along the way. Not recommended.
I rented this book from the public library.