This week I’m recommending a recently published Young Adult novel – Soman Chainani’s `The School for Good and Evil’, which is announced as the first volume of a trilogy.  In some countries it is only available in hardback or as a rather expensive audio download. In others, such as Britain, you can already get it in paperback or as an ebook. If you go for an audio version, you will miss out on the charming illustrations by  Iacopo Bruno. He is particularly good at drawing cockroaches, so anyone with a roach phobia should give this one a miss. `The School for Good and Evil’ combines two currently popular Fantasy sub-genres –  the modern take on fairy tales and the magical school story. This is a book which has found instant commercial success (the film rights are already sold) but has divided opinion. Is it fresh and delightful, or a cynical exercise in targeting teenage readers? Good or evil? I’m mainly coming down on the side of good, but keep in mind that I read this novel while recovering from an allergic reaction to a CT scan, so my judgement may be impaired…

The story begins in the village of Galvadon where every four years two children, one good and one bad, disappear. They are only ever seen again in the pictures in books of fairy tales. Rumour has it that a sinister figure known as the School Master takes the children to the School for Good and Evil where they are trained to become fairy tale heroes or villains. Everyone is terrified of the kidnapper; everyone except Sophie, the most beautiful girl in the village. Sophie longs to leave her dull home and become a fairy tale princess. To prove her goodness, self-centred Sophie has befriended plain and cantankerous Agatha who lives with her bald cat in the middle of a graveyard. Because she is different, everyone in the village thinks Agatha is a witch who is bound to end up at the School for Evil.  Agatha doesn’t believe that the School Master exists but she’s wrong. When the School Master comes for Sophie, Agatha tries to save her but they are both carried off into the forest.

Sophie is thrilled to be kidnapped until she is delivered to the Towers of Evil and Agatha to the Towers of Good. Both girls are convinced that a terrible mistake has been made but the wolves in charge of `The School for Evil Edification and Propagation of Sin’ won’t let Sophie go. She’s forced to endure grotesque room-mates and classes in Uglification, Curses and Deathtraps, and the History of Villainy. Meanwhile, Agatha isn’t finding it all sweetness and light in `The School for Good Enlightenment and Enchantment’ where she’s bullied by fairies and snubbed by beautiful girls who are mainly interested in the `Winning Your Prince’ class. Sophie and Agatha try to swap places but they can’t unless Sophie can prove that she is truly good and Agatha that she is truly evil. Once Agatha discovers the fate of children who fail their classes, she’s eager to escape from the school, but Sophie is determined to stay and be the one invited to the end of term ball by the dazzlingly handsome Prince Tedros. The prince is soon troubled to find himself falling for a girl who is supposed to be evil. Agatha tries to help Sophie get what she wants, even when it involves turning into a cockroach, but their plans keep going wrong. When Sophie is thwarted, she becomes very dangerous indeed. Agatha and Sophie are being manipulated by the School Master into living a story that can’t end happily for both of them…

`The School for Good and Evil’ is a darker book than this plot summary, and the rather twee cover, would suggest. Parts of it are very funny. Awkward Agatha gets into all sorts of ridiculous situations as the odd one out amongst the vapid `Evergirls’ and  I laughed at Sophie’s bizarre beauty routines (which involves fish eggs, pumpkin puree and cucumber juice), her inventive reworkings of Evil’s black school uniform, and her attempts to give make-overs to her fellow `Nevergirls’  – “Now remember, girls. Just because you’re ugly doesn’t mean you can’t be presentable.” This is a fantasy realm with all kinds of links to life in contemporary America and Chainani indulges in plenty of jokes based on references to popular culture.

As in traditional fairy tales, there is also pain, grief and cruelty. Sophie can’t bear to look at her mother’s grave and Agatha has been abandoned by her father. Both girls suffer horrible fairy tale punishments, such as being made to dance in red-hot iron shoes, and Sophie undergoes psychological torture in  the `Doom Room’. The sadistic treatment of children who come bottom of the class or fail to impress in the `Circus of Talents’  almost turns `The School for Good and Evil’ into a horror story. I wouldn’t give it to anyone under twelve. The dark edge to the writing does make the reader feel pity for `the losers’ – the young villains whose inevitable fate is to die at the hands of smug and self-satisfied `good guys’. Goodness is very clearly defined in this story, with the emphasis on forgiveness and the capacity to love others, but the Princes and Princesses destined to `live happily ever after’ are mainly shown as shallow creatures, more obsessed with good looks and worldly success than honour and virtue. Yet as one of the professors at the school says, “It’s not what you are; it’s what you do” that counts.

That applies to authors too. If I’d been asked to guess Chainani’s gender from the evidence of this novel, I would have got the answer wrong. He is disturbingly good at writing from the viewpoint of sixteen year-old girls. The current convention is that male authors should write books about and for men or boys, and female authors books about and for women and girls. Chainani triumphantly overturns this convention by creating two memorable female characters – Sophie, who longs to be different, and Agatha, who longs to be ordinary. His background in film helps to explain the visual flair of this novel but he is also someone with an academic training in the study of fairy tales. Chainani plays with traditional and contemporary story patterns in `The School for Good and Evil’ and hints that every generation of readers gets the heroes and villains it deserves. The beautiful girl who turns out to be the monster, has almost become a cliché of modern story-telling, but this book keeps you guessing about whether Sophie will become truly evil until the very last page. As a love-triangle element unfolds, the reader is seduced into wanting the plain girl to win the hero away from the pretty girl, before being made to question whether this actually would be a happy ending. Inspite of many romantic elements, `The School for Good and Evil’ is almost an anti-Romance. It is essentially a book about friendship. This friendship of opposites begins in self-interest but develops into an almost unbreakable bond. Sophie and Agatha’s relationship, with all its unspoken resentments and jealousies, is very realistically portrayed. No-one can hurt you like your best friend. I was surprised to find myself caring about the fate of both the girls and I shall follow them into the sequel. It’s going to be called `A World Without Princes’. Sounds promising. Until next week…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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