This is seriously one of the best middle grade novels I’ve ever read. It’s clever and has great themes and characters, working very well within the context of the fairytales that most Western people are familiar with. The School for Good and Evil is just so clever, and that’s why I loved it.
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…?
The School for Good & Evil is an epic journey into a dazzling new world, where the only way out of a fairy tale is to live through one.
The one flaw I found in the story was that there were maybe too many characters, which got a little confusing at times. I would also say that it wasn’t at all subtle—that wasn’t a problem for me, as I wasn’t really expecting subtlety in this middle grade novel, but if very blatant ideas trouble you, maybe stay away.
The context of this story is simply marvellous. It’s basically about a school where fairytale characters (or their offspring) are trained for their story, either to be on the side of good, or evil. Some of the stories referenced weren’t exactly fairytales—like King Arthur—but most of the stories are pretty familiar. Every four years, two children—not fairy tale ones, just normal ones—from the village of Gavaldon are taken. This story focuses on Sophie—blonde, obsessed with princes and finding love, pretty—and Agatha—dark haired, moody, and a little bit belligerent. They both get taken, but nothing quite turns out as they expect. I really appreciated the twists on the original tales that this novel gives, and I’m sure younger children will as well.
“Why did everything with Evers (the good side) revolve around oppressive formal dances? The problem with Balls was that boys had to do all the work. Girls could flirt and scheme and wish all they wanted, but in the end it’s the boy who had to make his choice and hope she said yes.”
“So if a girl doesn’t get asked to the Ball, then she fails and suffers a punishment worse than death. But if a boy doesn’t go to the ball, he gets half ranks? How is that fair!”
“I’m far from home, I’ve lost my only friend, everyone here hates me, and all I want is a way to find some kind of happy ending.[…] But you can’t even tell me the truth. My ending is not about what Good I do or what’s inside me. It’s about how I look.”
Chainani, as these quotes hopefully show, effectively challenges fairytale tropes while working within them—and I loved it. As the title gives away, the book is about Good and Evil, and the differences, and similarities between them. There’s also a lot of other contrasting ideas at work here: witch and princess, ugly and beautiful, kind and cruel, story and truth, friend and enemy. I loved how Sophie and Agatha’s friendship on opposite sides—one Good, one Evil—showed that. It’s not subtle, like a YA novel or adult story would try to be. But it doesn’t have to be subtle—it tells the story perfectly how it is.
“We can be friends there—on the same side—no Good, no Evil—we’ll be happy forev—”
Good and Evil are presented as opposites, but necessary ones. Without Evil, Good would be meaningless, and without Good Evil would be meaningless—they keep each other in balance. And, as the stunning, violent, tragic, perfect ending shows, there’s no hard and fast lines between Good and Evil. There might not even be lines at all.
”In the end, they had known what she didn’t—that the line between stories and real life is very thin indeed.”
“Evil thought it had corrupted Good and Good thought it had enlightened Evil, but it didn’t matter.”
“Could being a villain make her…happy?”
Then there are Chainani’s marvellous characters. They are the backbone and most important part of the story. There’s ugly Hester, entitled Beatrix, confused Tedros, dizzy Professor Princess Uma, malevolent wolves, vicious fairies, and over them all the neutral, crazy mystery of the School Master, and the way that Good keeps.on.winning. There were maybe too many characters—the plot would have been smoother without everyone but that was okay, they provided a wonderful backdrop to our heroines/villainesses, Sophie and Agatha. These two characters are amazing. They’re flawed, and a bit bitter. They cheat and lie, and say cruel things. They change—very obvious, physical change, and subtle, character change. They do things. They make choices, they regret choices, they’re out for blood, they’re desperate for friends and power and love and understanding. They’re incredibly dynamic characters, which makes them simply a delight to read. Agatha is very easy to empathise with—she’s always felt like an outsider, but still just wants to go home, but she’s open to new ideas and ethics, which makes her very interesting. Sophie is sort of harder to read. She’s beautiful, and boy-crazy, and crazy-crazy, and wild and bad at making choices—but she isn’t without redeeming factors. Her kindness is crazy, but it’s still kindness. Her skills are weird. Altogether, the characters relationship dynamics make a fascinating combination and a wonderful story.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Never, Ever or whatever. In the end, the fairest of them all wins.”
“In this school for Good, where everyone was supposed to be kind and loving, she had still ended up alone and despised. She was a villain, no matter where she went.”
“Those who are Evil cannot make their souls Good and those who are Good cannot make their souls Evil.
“Agatha did the only thing she knew how to do when faced with expectations. She [ran].”
This novel is totally fabulous, and you should probably read it.
Are you going to read A School for Good and Evil? Who’s your favourite complex villain? Do you read much MG literature? tell me in the comments!