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Warning: There is no sugarcoating to be found here.
The School for Good and Evil sounds awesome in concept. Maybe I expected too much from it--I don't think I did because middle-grade is just as capable of saying something and being intelligent as book from any other category--but the premise sounded like the perfect way to both pay tribute to fairy tales and challenge the gender roles and other such problematic elements that permeate them. Did it do it?
You get three guesses and this gif is your only hint.
Good god, no it didn't. The School for Good and Evil is bad on so many unexpected levels and I want to see it banished from my home. No, from my brain. I wish I'd never read it and never suffered through it spitting in the face of my feminism so much.
The novel starts out well enough and the lovable whimsy of fairy tales is threaded throughout the novel even when things get irritating. From the very first chapter, it's clear why Sophie ends up in Evil and Agatha ends up in good: everything "good" Sophie does is done with the self-centered purpose of proving she is good and Agatha has her heart set on getting her and Sophie home from the moment they arrive at the schools. Of course, it takes them roughly half the book to see this themselves. My reader privilege of seeing things more clearly and the obviousness of it all made that particularly frustrating.
Sophie is right at home in the School for Evil from the start even though all the villains think otherwise. Meanwhile, Agatha is in the right pleace in heart but not in spirit because she is the antithesis of everything the novels holds up as princess-like. She spends most of the novel being the most real, well-developed character with the best story. Then the last 100 pages arrive and she becomes the princess to a T. She loses everything about her that made me care so much about her story because she'd rather be like everyone else than keep being herself, and gives up on questioning and messing with fairy tales. It is 100% about conforming to them and glorifying them. Even the chapter with the Wish Fish seems suspect now. It initially seemed to be pointing out that Good has screwed-up, horrific standards for girls, but there's no way to be sure anymore because it rejoices in everything problematic.
The prince of our tale? A spineless, flip-flopping jock who kicks bunnies. WHY AM I SUPPOSED TO WANT THESE GIRLS TO BE SWOONY OVER A PRINCE THAT KICKS BUNNIES? That THIS jerk is who causes so much contention between Sophie and Agatha--and also ALL THE GIRLS IN GOOD for a time because all of them want him--appalls me. Take the nearest inanimate object and paint a face on it. BAM. Right there is a prince (or princess, depending on how you swing) far better than Tedros will ever be.
In addition to all the, the narration is inconsistent, jumping between two or three people in a single scene without any good transition. Thanks to the girls taking so long to figure out they really are where they belong, the book moves forward slowly and is much, much longer than it needs to be. In the grand scale of what is to come, these problems are minor.
No, the real problem begins with the novel so ardently sticking to the less woman-friendly elements of fairy tales and basically spitting in feminism's face as much as possible.
From the start, it establishes good is pretty and evil is ugly. This is the one thing that seems to be really questioned and it gave me hope, but don't be fooled just because these beauty standards seem challenged early on. Like everything else, Sophie and Agatha, who originally defy this, conform to it perfectly. As mentioned earlier, there's a lot of girl-against-girl in part due to Tedros and in part due to... BECAUSE MEAN GIRLS! That's pretty much the reasoning I get from it. I can't even point to the friendship between Sophie and Agatha as female-positive because I don't understand why they're friends. Sophie treats Agatha horribly.
When Sophie decides to dress up and try to impress Tedros that way, things really take a turn for the disastrous. One day, she is wearing an "extermely short dress" that shows off "her long, creamy legs" and a heavily made-up face ("her face was painted geisha white, her eyelids pink, her lips vermilion") (all direct quotes from p. 250); another day, she is wearing a"revealing black sari" (p.261).
SOPHIE IS TWELVE OR THIRTEEN YEARS OLD. Sexualizing a girl this young is so far from good that there is no word for it. Sexualization + cultural appropriation with the sari =
We've also got a princess whose age is somewhere between twelve and sixteen (Beatrix's age is never stated) telling other girls to skip breakfast because it makes them fat anyway. For one thing, that's false. For two, a possibly pre-teen girl spouting that disturbs me. That girls care that much about their image is a huge problem and the line really is unnecessary. Even if it comes from the mean girl's mouth and can probably be discounted, it isn't needed.
I wanted to go on about the novel's bad relationship with homosexuality because it's treated like something awful when two princes are rumored to be going to a ball together so one of them doesn't get stuck going with Agatha and a villain uses implications of it falsely to try and make a prince betray his princess, but I cannot. I literally cannot because the mess there is so huge I can't tell what is awful and what is not. All I know for sure is the novel doesn't worry about LGBT people. No gay princes or lesbian princesses here.
The only reason this isn't zero stars and out my window is because Agatha started out so well, the illustrations inside are quite nice, and one particular page (161, if you're curious) remains awesome even after my reading experience went so sour. Tedros being kicked in the groin by Goblin!Agatha is never not wonderful. In any case, I want nothing to do with the sequel and nothing more to do with this book. Skip it, read it, whatever. As long as I don't get roped into it somehow, have at it! Meanwhile, I will be trying to find ways to get rid of both my ARC and my finished copy.