What’s this? A middle grade book, right on this very blog?
I decided to check this out for a variety of complex reasons, including a) it was on sale b) it has a nice cover and c) it’s sort of vaguely similar to something I’m writing right now if you squint a bit. This is the kind of sophisticated reading you can only get here on Doing In The Wizard.
The School For Good and Whatever has a premise that feels like it might have been dreamt up by someone with “Brand Executive” in their job title, possibly the same person responsible for all of those fairy tale movies we’ve been getting recently. In a quaint fantasy village two children over the age of twelve are kidnapped every four years and taken to the titular school(s), where they train to become the heroes and villains of fairy tales. The “Evers” of the school for Good learn how to either be heroes or simpering damsels depending on gender while the “Nevers” of the apparently more equal-opportunity school for Evil graduate as witches and evil overlords and what have you.
Sophie And Agatha are two girls with an extremely volatile friendship owing to their wildly different personalities. Sophie is a spoiled, pampered rich girl who’s convinced she’g going to be spirited away to the school for Good to become a princess, whereas Agatha is a brooding loner who lives in a graveyard and thinks the whole idea is superstitious nonsense. She turns out to be wrong of course, and both girls get kidnapped by the seemingly all-powerful School Master. But, in a Shocking Twist, Agatha ends up in the Good school while Sophie gets dumped on the other side in Evil not-Hogwarts. The two then alternately scheme to change schools and just get the hell out and go back home.
What we end up getting out of this is a sort of hyper-kinetic cross between Terry Pratchett and JK Rowling. The Harry Potter comparisons are more or less unavoidable and the book doesn’t try particularly hard to sidestep them (the Evil school in particular feels like Hogwarts with all the dials set to eleven), although the direction the plot actually goes in is fairly original.
There are a lot of fairly clever ideas at play here, with the structure of the book’s setting mirroring the relationship between the two central characters, but unfortunately it’s largely undone by the fact that Chainani’s writing just isn’t very good. His background is in screenwriting and it shows, with dialogue that’s frequently witty and entertaining but prose that feels half baked and shallow. The narration barrels ahead at a breakneck pace with little in the way of description, which, combined with the over the top nature of the setting, means that the titular School(s) never feel like real places and it often seems like the book is more of a plot outline someone wrote for a marketing pitch than an actual novel. Chainani’s breathless prose stumbles particularly when characters are called on to do anything more complex than open a door, so that action scenes are frequently incoherent.
I actually felt as if I was reading a fairly unpolished first draft a lot of the time, which may actually be the case- a movie deal was announced almost as soon as the book was out and I get the feeling this may have been shoved out the door quickly because someone had an idea that it was going to be the Next Big Thing. In any case, it badly needed a hardcore rewrite. Despite being quite long by middle grade standards and sagging heavily in places, way too much happens in it, and the last two chapters have so much action and character reversals crammed into them that they’re outright incoherent.
A more serious flaw is the character of Sophie. Her entire deal is that she’s a completely rotten person in almost every respect but doesn’t realize it. This becomes apparent by the end of the second page, but the book continues to hammer it home over and over again. She’s vain, arrogant, spoiled, jealous, lacking in compassion and most of the story’s conflict is driven by her selfishness. Which is of course the point- she’s meant to literally be a fairytale villain- but the problem is that it severely undermines the relationship between her and Agatha, which is the main emotional lynchpin of the entire story.
The book spends a lot of time telling us that the two girls are super BFFs and have this amazing deep bond (there’s literally a scene at the start where they sit by the side of a lake and hold hands and say “gosh, we are such close friends despite how often we argue with each other!”), but we don’t actually feel it a whole lot. In particular, I have trouble understanding why Agatha would want to spend more than ten minutes in Sophie’s company. If you’re paying even slight attention to her narration it’s clear early on that she’s actually in love with Sophie, and then by the end it seems that the feeling is mutual. Which, okay, is a pleasant surprise in a children’s property that’s obviously intended to be highly commercial, but I just can’t figure out how they could possibly feel that way, and particularly what Agatha is supposed to be seeing in Sophie given her utter dearth of positive qualities.
Also, the book starts getting heavily into the whole good = beauty and evil = ugly stuff from the beginning. Naturally I kept assuming this would be subverted in some way, and then it…. isn’t.
In the end The School For Good and Evil feels like a half-baked project launched solely to kick-start a multimedia franchise. It’s like one of those big cardboard stands you see in book shops with the fancy artwork, except without the actual books to make it mean anything. It’s all glitz and no heart.