The School for Good and Evil -- Soman Chainani
Book 1 of The School for Good and Evil
2013 Release -- Harper Collins
Middle Grade, Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Humor, Magic
The School for Good and Evil is definitely written excellently. There is a creative world within the Fairy Tale schools, well-developed characters with somewhat unique personalities to an extent (more on that later), and a wonderfully nonsensical, yet clever humor that allows for the subtle mockery of traditional tropes found in most fairy tale worlds.
I will probably mention this again, but to be honest, my impression of love for this book is conflicting.
On the one hand, it’s a humorous parody of all the sugar-coated and moralized fairy tales we learned to love growing up. It does quite the job of making fun of the typical Good versus Evil set-up in fairy tales as well as the physical and personality “requirements“ it takes to become one or the other. It brings up a lot of good plot points and a lot of good ideals that are typically presented in a lot of childrens’ and young adult stories and puts them to question: physical attractiveness, elitism, belonging, man-made societal standards, gender double standards and inequality....
What do we view as Good? What do we believe is Evil? Who makes these rules? Who creates these standards?
This book really makes you think.
But on the other hand, a lot of those issues it brought up seem to just drift off as if they were simply passing thoughts rather than actual, inspiring ideals that merited further discussion. When the conclusion came around, there were still a lot of loose ends as all the focus was directed at wrapping the story up for our two girls, and hitting home the main somewhat-of-a-resolution to the background conflict and the main conflict, and pretty much just “defeating the main villain”.
A Brief Summary:
Basically we’ve got two little girls from the town of Gavaldon who physically (and socially) represent the standards for “Good” and “Evil”--personality-wise, it’s a little fuzzy. Because while it’s clear cut that Sophie is definitely NOT Good as she claims to be, Agatha straddles a line between Good and Evil if we follow storybook standards--if we follow Real World standards, Agatha is just an ordinary little girl who’s a bit socially awkward, and Sophie is the popular mean girl everyone loves because she’s charming enough to fool everyone.
In the present day of the storyline, the townspeople of Gavaldon fear for the children. It is stated that every few years, two kids are kidnapped and taken to the Schools for Good and Evil to become fairy tale characters.
Sophie believes that this will be her year to be chosen to become part of the School for Good, to become a princess and have her luxurious Happily Ever After with a dashing prince. And of course, everyone knows Agatha will be taken as the “Evil” child.
When the two girls are taken, however, Sophie finds herself landed in the dark and horrid School for Evil while Agatha is dropped into the School for Good. Worse yet, not only do the girls themselves feel like a mistake was made, but the other students eye them with misgivings as well:
Beautiful, pink-loving Sophie should be part of the Evers in the School of Good; Agatha who comes off dark, awkward, different, and who could care less about her physical appearance should be placed in the School of Evil with the Nevers.
Of course, as the readers, we know already that there are reasons why each girl has been placed where she is. And so the fairy tale begins with an even deeper conspiratorial twist unfolding as the girls find their places in this story and learn more about themselves than they would have ever admitted or believed.
My Somewhat Random Bullet-Point List of Thoughts
- My first impression of the book was that it is a cutesy little parody with humorous quips, amusing situations, and it would be a nice little fluff read. I don’t pick up very many Middle Grade books as they sometimes come off even less relatable to me than Young Adult books (being that I am very much far removed from both target audiences). But I ended up loving The School for Good and Evil mainly for the writing style, the humor, the two main characters and their relationship, as well as those subtle mentions of thoughtful issues sprinkled around.
And so, yes, my first thought after having finished this book was definitely laced with This book was SO, SO awesome!! impressions.
After having time to sleep on it, however, I started nit-picking, though it doesn’t really diminish the fact that I still found the story extremely entertaining and I look forward to the rest of the trilogy to see if some of the unresolved issues brought up in hindsight will be addressed.
- I loved the love/hate friendship between Agatha and Sophie. While there were points that seemed a little out of character for both girls, the ultimate fact remains that they are both friends no matter how reluctant one or the other is to be friends at any given moment. Both have their own agendas they want fulfilled and both are learning how to be friends as well as how to be their real selves and both slowly learn that they need each other in order to survive this mess of a screwed up Fairy Tale.
Those random moments when Sophie embraces the fact that she may not be entirely Good, but when she hasn’t completely crossed into Evil were delightful. This was the Sophie I found the most agreeable, because she’s basically just being her true self rather than trying too hard to fit one mold or the other.
And while we already know that Agatha straddles her Good-Evil boundary, I actually enjoyed the storyline wherein she’s that socially awkward and different girl who doesn’t quite belong in Good, but who definitely doesn’t belong in Evil. When she finally commits to Good at the turning point in the story, she seems to lose quite a bit of her personality.
- Which brings up one of the issues I thought might need to be addressed a little bit better:
The reason why Agatha was never considered “Good” or “Beautiful” or any other storybook trait of “Good” was because of her awkwardness and her introvert, keep-to-herself personality. Even though she has a good heart, she isn’t ever really considered as belonging in the School of Good until she starts embracing all those more superficial aspects that the Evergirls consider significant: being and looking pretty and wearing pretty dresses and styling pretty hair, feeling confident about her own physical looks, wanting to get along and be friends with everyone, liking cute boys and finding a prince, having her own story and her own Happily Ever After… stuff like that.
But the fact is, even with her unique difference at the beginning of the book, Agatha shows that she is still a better representative of Good than any of the other “princesses” and “princes” in spite of her strange quirks for things considered “Evil.”
For example: While all the girls’ biggest wishes involve boys, Agatha’s wish to free the students who were trapped as animals in this fairy tale just because they failed shows that she has a good heart.
So it’s a little disheartening to see that Agatha needed to become physically and socially acceptable in “Good” standards just to become accepted as part of the School of Good. And in this sense, I’m not even certain what kind of message is being broadcasted.
- This also brings up my next point that the book does quite well to mock the School of Good by creating students who are all physically representative of “storybook Good”, but who all have personalities of high school Mean Girls who are judgmental and prejudiced against anyone different. The School for Evil was a little more interesting and honest, because they at least embraced their “evilness” rather than hiding behind false personalities.
- While the characters of The School of Good and Evil were all created in unique fashion, it doesn't escape me that they sort of DO lack some more major personality points if only because they either a) are trying too hard to fit into their assigned “Good” or “Evil” mold, or b) really just lack unique personalities outside of their “basic character list of unique traits” to make them stand out from the rest.
On paper, these characters are great. In action, they’re kind of one-dimensional.
- I would like the issue of the entire Good Snow Ball gender double standard addressed.
Agatha makes a good point:
”Wait. 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!”
“Because it’s the truth,” Kiko said. “A boy can choose to be alone if he wants. But if a girl ends up alone… she might as well be dead.”
This sadly brings up a point that is reinforced in a lot of traditional, as well as modern, youth fiction: that a girl’s story is not significant unless there’s a boy involved. It sadly undermines the fact that most girls DO have a life outside of boys and romance, but that mainstream media believes otherwise.
I was hoping that this issue would be brought up once again (as well as all the other double standard “Boys skill” classes and “Girls skill” classes in the School for Good), but these side tangents seem to just float around as the main conflict comes to an end and the book concludes itself.
- As I already mentioned before, this book brings up a lot of really good points of inspiration that could start debates and deep discussions and satirize them for good ol’ entertainment:
1) How Good is equated with physical beauty and Evil is related to ugly people in a good majority of fictional works and even fairy tales that are meant to be used as moral teaching aids for children.
2) How even “different” is considered an “Evil” personality trait but “conformity” is what “Good” little boys and girls do.
3) The mockery of the School of Good by turning it into a setting like any other storybook modern high school with Mean Girls and Popular cliques and whatnot and placing Agatha into their midst as the one loner who stands out and gets made fun of on a regular basis because she’s different.
4) The double standards in the School for Good that depict girls as helpless princesses awaiting rescue from a man while the boys get to learn how to fight and other such survival skills.
5) The fact that there is a gray area, but that sometimes we try too hard to classify people as either “Good” or “Evil” and separate the two accordingly using socially accepted traits. The fact that Agatha and Sophie represent this gray area doesn’t escape my notice and how they manage to slowly bring out the gray in the Good students and the Evil students is pretty significant.
I’m sure there were other issues I failed to address, but I’m not really analyzing this book so much as giving a very general opinion about what I took away from it.
- I’m conflicted about the romance-non-romance depicted in this book. While it’s nice that a love story isn't the main priority of our girls’ lives, I am also a hopeless romantic who would have liked to have seen a little bit of chemistry between one of the girls and our carbon-copy Prince Tedros (despite the fact that he really has no personality other than what is given to him as a typical, resident fairy tale prince).
In contrast, while I loved the friendship between Agatha and Sophie, their interactions and their overall relationship ranges an inconsistent kind of awkward warm and cool, back and forth. I can’t quite pinpoint what doesn’t feel right, but it might have to do with Sophie’s care towards Agatha being non-existent one moment, then coming straight out of left-field as a best friend two seconds later. And then Agatha’s attitude towards Sophie is also kind of back-and-forth in the same way.
- Speaking of Tedros, I am actually kind of interested in seeing whether or not he gets more book time in the rest of the series and whether or not he gets more depth as a character. There were scenes hinting that it’s a possibility that there is more to the carbon-copy prince than meets the eye; that he acknowledges his role as nothing but the standard Prince Charming type, and that he’s a little irked by that fact. But so far he’s not showing much promise.
- Oh, and there were definitely some FEELS taking place in certain places of the story that took me by surprise how readily the FEELS bubbled up in that rarely emotionally moved place we biologically would call my heart.
I caught some FEELS alright.
Final Thoughts: Bullet lists are fun until I try to make organization out of it. Then they just sound long-winded and awkward. I promise I don’t have a big soapbox to stand on with this book, because in the end, it was simply an entertaining, highly enjoyable childrens’ fantasy with excellent dry and nonsensical humor (right up my alley) and a creative world and storyline.
I look forward to the rest of the trilogy and I leave you with the first and most stand-out scene that made me snort with amused laughter. Because while a lot of the narration and dialogue and one-liner quips were amusing, it is those laugh-out-loud scenes (that kind of reminded me of Japanese anime humor) that will always earn bonus points from me:
In this scene, the students are to learn how to tell Good and Evil apart when they are disguised. It is Tedros’ turn and he, himself, specifically chooses Agatha and Sophie to represent each side so that he can prove that Agatha is Evil and Sophie is Good. But the results are not as he’d expected.
Sophie gaped at him. Her prince had just punched her. Her prince had just confused her with Agatha. How could she prove who she was?
“Use the rules!” Yuba bellowed atop a log.
Suddenly understanding, Sophie lurched up so her spotted, humped body towered over Tedros, and she caressed his chest with her greasy green hand. “My dear Tedros. I forgive you for not knowing any better and won’t defend myself even though you attacked me. I only want to help you, my prince, and give us a story that will take us hand in hand to love, happiness and Ever After.”
But all Tedros heard was a torrent of goblin growls, so he stomped on Sophie’s foot and ran towards Agatha’s goblin, arms outstretched. “I can’t believe you were ever friends with--”
Agatha kneed him in the groin.
I probably should have been more sympathetic towards Tedros’ pain, but I’m going to admit, I laughed. The moment was priceless, and yes, this is probably one of the reasons why I belong in the School for Evil.
Because the fact that Agatha is supposed to be Good, but spends a good amount of time being otherwise sardonic and different and not quite highlighting the storybook “Good” traits was the highlight of my enjoyment of this book. As I stated, I think her good heart trumps any other standard requirement of “Good” students even if she happens to have unique quirks that most people would side-eye.
[Yes, I was a little disappointed when she finally commits to Good and loses all of her strange quirks that made her so awesome in the first place. (hide spoiler)]
This book is a pre-chosen participant in the following Reading Challenge(s):