3.5 out of 5 stars
The School for Good and Evil is a 2013 children’s fantasy novel by Soman Chainani. His debut novel, TSFGAE went on to become a New York Times best seller and is the first in a trilogy that concludes sometime in 2015. It follows the story of two young girls named Agatha and Sophie who live in a village where it is common every few years for two opposing children to be kidnapped and never seen again – that is until new fairytale novels are released and those children are the main characters. All her life, Sophie has been waiting to be taken – she ritualised her life to become what she thought was a beacon of good. When the day comes for the children to be kidnapped, Sophie has her wish come true – with the unexpected addition of Agatha – but it is short lived when the two girls are sent to two different places. Both of which they were not expecting. Wannabe-princess Sophie finds herself in the School for Evil. Dark and twisted Agatha finds herself in the School for Good.
This story is all about breaking the conventions of what we perceive to be good and evil, but at times that point gets horribly lost.
To begin, the writing in this novel was okay. To me, it wasn’t anything spectacular – it was certainly tolerable and for once there were no grammatical faults, but it didn’t really stand out to me as anything memorable. The pacing of the story in general was comfortable. I never felt as though I wanted a scene to just end, the right amount of information was given at the right time but it still felt a little stale. There wasn’t really a bounce in the writing, it felt flat at points and the voices of the characters always ended up feeling forced. There wasn’t really much originality to how things were presented to the reader and during the first few chapters it was – though interesting – quite difficult to understand what was actually happening and why no one was questioning their own actions. It’s also difficult to pinpoint a time period or location.
The novel is set within two places – it starts in the village of Gavaldon, referred to throughout when titling Agatha and Sophie as ‘Woods Beyond’, and then progresses to the Schools beside the Endless Woods. No country is ever specified. There is also the lack of technology to take into consideration, but also the clothing choices and general behaviour of the girls. The biggest swore point when trying to ascertain when and where this story is set is the referrals to actual fairytales. It got annoying trying to build this world in my head with no real explanation as to what was going on.
Another thing that bugged me was the story’s own sense of perfection. No matter what was happening, there was a clear effort for everything to be perfect. The characters, the environments, the writing. It felt clunky and pretty far from perfect.
The characters were subtly brilliant in their own ways, each highlighting the fault in fairytales in ways that really do take time to register. My initial reaction to Sophie was hate. As protagonists go, she wasn’t the greatest. From the very first introduction of her character I knew that she was going to grate on me. She was the walking stereotype for Good – the most beautiful girl in the village with long blonde hair, blue eyes and a love of the colour pink. She spent her life dreaming of escaping her family and being in the School for Good. But all of her motivations were selfish. Her desire to abandon a family that had done nothing wrong to her was disgusting, her attitude to certain characters was snobbish and appalling, and every single good deed she tried to do was purely for her own self-gain. Yet appearance-wise she was what the School for Good expected. So much more time was spent with her than I liked, but it was all done so subtly that when it finally sunk in that she had the personality for a villain, I’d already put the book back on my shelf. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing though.
Tedros was the middle ground. His character was less subtly but equally as effective. He is seen as the strong, silent type. He is the son of King Arthur, is heir to Camelot, and knows a lot from his father’s story to have an opinion of fairytale women that is echoed throughout the book. He begins the story as the typical meat-head, jock type. He’s handsome and he knows it, and though he is in the School for Good he acts terribly towards others. His attitude is sour, and when it comes to Agatha initially he was absolutely disgusting towards her. And other’s from Evil. From his behaviour alone you would, again like Sophie, expect him to in Evil. But he’s the Prince Charming type despite his inner conflict when it comes to girls. Due to his mother, Guinevere, betraying his father in the way she did, Tedros has vowed to not follow in his footsteps. He doesn’t want a girl to trick him or use him, he doesn’t want the heartbreak his father went through with his mother. Yet with Sophie, he brightens until he is inevitably repulsed by her and feels betrayed. This is also the case, in reverse, with Agatha.
Agatha was the only character that I ever felt comfortable with, who I actually felt empathy for, and I feel that she was the main focus of the novel’s point. How modern storytelling has grown has led to a greater increase of people cheering on and supporting the underdogs. Agatha is certainly that. She is the complete opposite of Sophie in every way possible. She is rude and mean and sarcastic, a loner with bad hygiene, an attraction to all things black and fashion choices which would make big designers cry. But she is so amazingly good – any good deed she performs is a selfless one. She still has selfish moments, like wanting to go home, but there is always more to it. She didn’t just want herself to go home, she wanted Sophie home with her family too. She wanted comfort. She helped people that needed helping and put up with an astounding amount of judgement from all sides because she never fitted in with any type.
All the characters grow and accept themselves: Agatha accepts she’s good and her role as a princess, she keeps her own sense of self whilst growing into a role many of filled before, and Sophie accepts that she’s evil, she truly is evil and a happy ending may never come for her but she will give it her best shot to win one.
And that is the whole point of the story – that the world has evolved since the time of the original fairytales, and that things aren’t as cookie-cutter-like as they were before. No one is ever what they first seem, even to themselves, and it’s all about self-growth-and-acceptance and understanding who you are as an individual. The only problem is the writing trips over itself in trying to get that point across.
Hopefully, things will improve with the rest of the story as Soman has more chance to develop the world and characters. His writing is nice and not overwhelming, managing to be very vivid when describing certain events and characters. However, the story is very far from perfect and didn’t really sit right with me.