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Once Upon a Time? Happily Ever After? Not… Quite.

Once Upon a Time? Happily Ever After? The School for Good and Evil  by Soman Chainini shows how we aren't shaped by what we perceive to be our fate, rather who we are is determined by the choices that we make.

Once Upon a Time? Happily Ever After? Not… Quite.

BOOK REPORT for The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

Cover Story: Anime-tastic!
BFF Charm: Yay and Nay
Swoonworthy Scale: 6
Talky Talk: Shades of Her Supreme Eminence, J.K. Rowling
Bonus Factors: Boarding School, Fairy Tales
Relationship Status: Ready to enroll

Cover Story:  Anime-tastic!

Original artwork and not clip art, yay! The cover is what actually drew me to this book in the first place.  Two girls, two schools and two swans, one light and one dark.  You know that shit is going to get REAL.  Intensive Google research has revealed to me that the illustrator, Iacopo Bruno, has also done book jackets for such literary heroes as Lauren Oliver, Robin LaFevers and Neil Gaiman. I like his style, all dark and gothic with promises of a story well-told, full of revealed secrets, true villains and even truer heroes.  I had zero shame in carting this book around with me, but I’m someone who never understood why anyone would buy the Harry Potter books with the “adult” covers. (Uh, it still says Harry Potter on the front there, folks.)

The Deal:

Sophie and Agatha are unlikely friends who live in the village of Gavaldon. Sophie is blonde, beautiful and an awful person convinced that she is the epitome of goodness.  Agatha is dark-haired, pale, awkward, and convinced that she is unlovable and incapable of ever feeling “ordinary”.  She is also intelligent and loyal, the best friend a girl could ever ask for.

Every four years the residents of Gavaldon lock their doors and hide away their children in fear of their being chosen as a student for The School of Good or The School of Evil.  Sophie dreams of being chosen, so when she is snatched away by a shadowy figure in the middle of the night she believes that she is well on her way to fulfilling her destiny at The School of Good.  Agatha pursues her in the hopes of “rescuing” her, and also gets taken along for the ride.  Surprise! Agatha is dropped off at Good and Sophie is dropped off at Evil.  The girls are convinced that they’ve gotten it wrong and try their hardest to switch schools, to no avail. 

BFF Charm: Yay and Nay

From the beginning I knew that Sophie and I were going to have issues.  This is a girl who thinks that doing Good Deeds encompasses giving used corsets to homeless women and baking low-fat bran-filled baked goods for her neighbors.  It’s the neighborly way of saying, “Hey! You could stand to lose a few! Enjoy the muffins!”  She also doesn’t understand how anyone who isn’t beautiful (and by default, slim) could possibly be happy.  Her dream is to escape her small village of Gavaldon and live an extraordinary life by - wait for it - marrying a prince. 

Agatha, on the other hand, and her sweet emo self, we are Besties4Eva.  She wants nothing more than to stop feeling so alone and so indulges Sophie in her Good Deed-Doing of (you guessed it) visiting her with low-fat high-fiber baked goods.  Agatha has so little going for her in the way of day-to-day human contact (her dad is out of the picture and her mother is the village herbwoman and so is seldom home) that she actually looks forward to Sophie’s visits.  The girls take walks together and start to forge a friendship out of their mutual loneliness.  Sophie shares her dreams of getting chosen for the fabled School of Good and Agatha shares her dreams of just feeling ordinary for once, no longer an outsider.

Swoonworthy Scale: 6

You didn’t think that a book about fairy tales wasn’t going to have some PRINCES hanging about, right? Tedros is our main prince, son of King Arthur (and also Guinevere, which gives him some serious trust issues considering how she took off with Lancelot and broke his dad’s heart) and he is the Prince To Get.  Sophie has her eye on him with laser-like precision, but how can he fall in love with her when she’s been labeled as Evil?  It turns out that Tedros isn’t vapid or shallow, and so Agatha must assist Sophie in wooing him, a la Cyrano de Bergerac. You can kind of see where this is going, right? IT’S SO MUCH WORSE because Sophie is straight up cray cray when it comes to her “love” for Tedros. 

Talky Talk: Shades of Her Supreme Eminence, JK Rowling

Boarding school, magic, competition, creatures, humor, friendships, romance, professors - how can I not make this comparison? It’s nothing but good, friends.  Nothing but good.

While traditional fairy tale characters can feel a bit flat and one-sided, you will not find that here.  These students may have grown up being told that they are either good OR evil, but they soon find out that this is never really the case.  I was never bored by any of the characters but instead found myself rooting for all of them.  Even Sophia. 

The worldbuilding feels authentic even if it can’t help but borrow from similar books.  It also doesn’t shy away from this underlying current of a Very Big Bad going on somehow and while it’s not explored too much here I’m sure that the sequels will MORE than cover that ground.

Bonus Factor:  Boarding School

All I need to read on a dust-jacket is that the story takes place in a boarding school and I’m SOLD.  Then when I read on the flap that there are classes called Uglification, Animal Communication and Henchmen Training how can I resist?  Here we have kids who are competing to be the Next Big Prince/Princess or the Next Big Villain.  And it’s serious - those who grade lower will end up becoming henchmen, animal companions or WORSE.  They’ve been told to loathe one another and so they do, but now Sophie and Agatha arrive, already friends, and this upsets the status quo. 

Bonus Factor: Fairy Tales

When a book can take what’s already so historically familiar to us and still manage to flip it around a bit and make it relevant to present day, and do it WELL? It’s fantastic.  As much as I loved them as a kid, I don’t think I would be able to sit down and watch Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty as an adult and feel totally comfortable.  (Well, except for the mice. And Maleficent. They are adorable and she is GLORIOUS.)  This archaic idea of womanhood that is so prevalent in old school Disney doesn’t do anyone a service, least of all the little girls who are watching them.  Fairy tales need to be subverted a bit nowadays to reflect our cultural values and this is more than achieved here.

Casting Call:

Candice Accola as Sophie

I think she could bring the right amount of bitchiness to this role, as well as The Crazy. Candice did such a great job making us care about the (ridiculously needy and controlling) Caroline Forbes in The Vampire Diaries that I'm sure she could bring Sophie some redemption as well.

A younger Christina Ricci as Agatha

I mean really now.  Could I have chosen anyone else?

Mitch Hewer as Tedros

Maxxie from Skins you guys! How much did I LOVE HIM? I reckon he's got a bit of chivalry in him.

Relationship Status:  Ready to Enroll

Where the book really started to impress me was in its handling of Good vs. Evil. Because it’s not just a case of, “Oh it’s so obvious that Sophie isn’t ACTUALLY good because she’s narcissistic and clueless, and Agatha isn’t ACTUALLY evil just because she’s pale and likes to wear black!”  It goes much deeper than that and the storytelling and character-building are top notch.  Borrowing from fairy tales can be tricky; stay too faithful and it feels outdated and done-to-death, stray too far and it can feel like trying-too-hard.  There is a balance struck here of seeking out the truth of these tales, not the fantasy.  The girl Evers (Good students) may want to spend all day grooming for their future prince but they soon learn that Valor, Honor and Forgiveness are what make you truly good, not your hair products. Likewise, the Nevers (Evil students) start to understand what makes someone evil are their choices, not their emo attire. For centuries the Good students and the Evil students have been told that they can only be one or the other in order to keep things balanced.  What Chainani achieves here is an examination of truly important existential questions - Who am I? What makes me who I am? How do others see me vs. How do I see myself? Freedom of choice vs. Fate, and he does it in such a way that it never feels heavy or obvious. 

But which school to choose? Can’t I be both a princess AND a badass who takes no crap from anyone? Is it wrong to want both a nemesis (because how cool would that be?) AND a prince? This book is the first of three and its ending is kind of WHOA so I am fully onboard to see where the next installment (titled A World Without Princes) takes me.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my review copy from HarperCollins.  I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). The School for Good and Evil is available now.

Amanda Reid's photo About the Author: Amanda R. is an East Coast girl living in California who will never stop missing a true autumn. She's a bookseller who specializes in kid and teen lit, the leader of FYA Oakland, and bakes a damn fine pie.