Book Review: The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani


What’s the one thing Evil can never have… and the one thing Good can never do without?


With her glass slippers and devotion to good deeds, Sophie knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and join the ranks of past students like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White. Meanwhile, Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks and wicked black cat, seems a natural fit for the villains in the School for Evil.

The two girls soon 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 among 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?

I’m a sucker for any book with boarding schools. I think ever since Harry Potter, boarding school is an instant book-boner for most readers. I’m also a sucker for a good fairy tale. Censored as they may be, the Disney renaissance movies were my childhood and still are some of my favorite movies. So combine fairy tales and boarding school and you have me sold.

The School for Good and Evil is Chainani’s debut novel and I must say it’s pretty good. Every year two children are kidnapped from the village of Gavaldon and taken to the School for Good and Evil to learn to be fairy tale heroes and villains. Best friends Sophie and Agatha are taken and dropped off at the opposite schools. The beautiful Sophie is taken to the school for evil, normally attended by those of questionable appearance, while the eccentric Agatha is taken to the school for good, filled with students with not a blemish in sight. Here, the girls have very different goals: Agatha searches for a way back to Gavaldon, while Sophie searches for a way to prove her Goodness and ultimately end up at the school for Good.

Being a psychology student, I get really into books that explore good versus evil. What makes us good? What makes us evil? Doesn’t it all depend on perspective? But in the world of SGE there is good (the Evers), there is evil (the Nevers), and they do not mix. These ideas of Good and Evil are based very much on surface characteristics. Evers are mannerly and well dressed and the Nevers are the opposite. And as Agatha searches for a way back home, she finds that the Evers may have more dirty secrets than expected.

Chainani took two girls, the best of friends, and forced their true natures to the surface through the pursuit of conflicting goals. And while I am not the biggest fan of the relationship between Sophie and Agatha, I can definitely see how their friendship can be seen as a positive thing. Some of the supporting characters had their character development catalysed by the girls’ journeys. And it’s this sense of ambiguity that I think makes for good characterisation.

Now how did the fairy tale aspect own up? If you’re expecting SGE to be a retelling of the fairy tales you know and love, think again. While there is mention of some well known fairy tales like Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel, a lot of the stories referenced are either lesser known tales or entirely made up by the author as far as I can tell. At first I was thrown off by this. I was expecting Cinderella to teach Etiquette and Charming to show the boys how to swing swords in Swordplay, but having new characters with their own tales showed Chainani’s ability to be original and really own the world he created.

But it wasn’t perfect. Despite my enjoyment of SGE, I had a couple of issues. Mostly minor issues, but still things worth mentioning. The first being the way the point-of-view changed. The novel is told in third person, mostly from Sophie and Agatha’s perspective, but there was little to indicate the shift between the two. When the POV changed to one of the minor characters there were skipped lines and I wonder why that didn’t happen when changing between the main girls as well. It wasn’t terribly confusing, but it was disorienting enough that I had to reread a few paragraphs more than a couple times. My second issue is the instalove. And while I do concede that fairy tales are practically built on instalove, I really wish the author had found a way around it. I may be speaking too soon due to the implied direction of the second novel, but for most of the book Sophie did nothing but fawn over her “prince”.

All things aside, The School for Good and Evil is a solid start to a fairy tale adventure for all ages and I look forward to seeing where things go in the sequel.

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