Monday, 8 July 2013

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

The School for Good and Evil (The School for Good and Evil, #1)
Age Group: Middle-Grade
Genre: Fantasy
Pub Date: May 2013
Publisher: HarperCollins

I really wanted to love this book. Really. I saw in in a bookshop and immediately fell in love with the cover and concept, and I was over the moon when I saw it was available on NetGalley (thank you Netgalley and HarperCollins for this copy). But I didn’t love this book. It was one of those cases of “concept much better than execution”, and left me unimpressed in the way it carried out its so-called messages.

The School for Good and Evil follows Sophie and Agatha, and their entrance into the title’s School for Good and Evil. The school is to train villains and heroes to star in their own fairy-tales. Sophie is beautiful and seems like a perfect princess, and Agatha is ugly and should be a witch. Shock horror, Sophie lands in Evil, and Agatha lands in Good. The rest of the book follows them taking part in classes, and trying to get to where they belong.

Let’s start with the good points: the plot and writing. Despite the issues I had with the rest of the book, I found it an engaging read, and well written. Chainani created a brilliant world, and despite the parts I found confusing, I kept on wanting to keep reading on. He is also a great writer, with enough description to make me see the world, witty one liners, and lots of colourful and fun ideas.

Sadly, that is not enough to carry the book.

I found this book preachy and confusing. Whatever message it was trying to give was erased a few chapters on by a contradicting idea. The problem was that Chainani was dealing in extremes: pure good and pure evil, making it very hard to see what was a statement and what was exaggeration. For one, the Evers (“Good”) vanity was constantly criticised, which I find pretty preachy, yes being overly vain is a bad thing, but wanting to indulge in grooming and make up surely isn’t. Yet, there was no middle ground covered, except when Agatha got a makeover to find out nothing had happened except she was beautiful all along. This seemed to contradict his message that beauty is a not essential to be good, and I would have preferred to have seen Agatha come to terms with her looks that didn’t involve a fairy godmother. But was this all exaggeration?  Also it did not offer any clear reasons for why people were good and evil. Were they just born like that? I kept waiting for a reason for Sophie’s actions, but never got one.

That was another issue, the inconsistency in Sophie. Agatha I liked, she was a well-rounded character, funny and flawed, and more importantly I understood her. She wasn’t pure good, but just good enough. Sophie was a mess. As I said before, I could not understand anything she did. Everything seemed to boil down to an obsessive need for Happy Ever After and vanity. Yet the only explanation was that she read a lot of fairy tales and wanted to get out her hometown. One moment Sophie was desperate to prove how good she was, the next she was the Ultimate Evil. This made her a good plot device, but an awful character.

Was this a good middle-grade book? I probably wouldn’t give it to an 11 year old. If you want to offer a good fairy-tale twist, there are better things out there (check out Cathrynne Valance). I found it confusing and I was way above the age-range. Nevertheless, it was exciting, fun, and sometimes very clever, so I guess my summary of this is just as inconsistent as the book itself.

Sum It Up: An erratic story with a fairy-tale twist. It makes an interesting read, but don’t expect anything too deep.

Rating: 5/10

*I received this copy from HarperCollins via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*

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