Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani

The School for Good and Evil has been one of those sneaky summer bestsellers that seems to have utterly captured the hearts of a whole bunch of 10 - 13 year olds, so I thought I’d give it a read to find out why.

In Sophie and Agatha’s world, the land of fairytales is all too real. Every four years, two children are stolen from their village in the dead of night and taken away to attend the School for Good and Evil. For most villagers this is something to be feared, by Sophie dreams of being taken, desperate to prove her worth in the School for Good. But when the night of reckoning arrives and it seems as if her dreams are about to come true, a terrible mistake is made. Or is it a mistake? For while Sophie has been snatched by the Schoolmaster, she’s been delivered to the School for Evil, and her reclusive, witchy friend has been delivered to the School for Good.

I really love the idea of showing that good and evil rarely conform to the stereotypical packages that society, literature and myth traditionally place them in. To approach it in this way is a very intriguing concept, and I wondered how successful Soman Chainani would be in bringing it fully to life. The story he’s written is a bit of a mixed bag, sometimes striking out against the stereotypes, sometimes conforming to them. As Sophie becomes ever more determined to prove she should be in the School for Good, becoming more and more devious in her attempts to win the prince, her looks gradually turn from beatific princess to craggy hag. Meanwhile, as Agatha becomes ever more determined to help her friend and save the school from the path down which Sophie is steering it, she conversely loses her ‘outsider appearance’, ultimately wowing the other students with her beauty – although, in Chainani’s favour, this beauty is shown to have been hers all along, she simply didn’t know how to ‘be’ it before.

Chainani builds his story around the traditional fairytale arc, simultaneously using fairytale elements and trying to work against them, which must have been an incredibly difficult balance to strike. My assumption was that this would be a story which tried to show that the Cinderella aspects of fairytales aren’t relevant to real life – that how you look isn’t representative of the person you are, that a girl mustn't have a boyfriend in order to be considered worthwhile, and Chainani does touch upon this. Perhaps, though, my assumptions were wrong – rather, they were hopes. Perhaps Chainani’s intention was purely to write an amusing and adventurous story set in a fairytale world with a twist. And this he has certainly done. While I personally found it a little hard going in places, really disliked the Sophie character from beginning to end, and clearly would have liked to have seen more substance, it is definitely a book that is capturing the imaginations of its intended audience. That alone is a significant achievement, though it’s not a book I personally feel inspired to recommend. Am I being harsh? Is any reading is good reading? This book is a cunning and rip-roaring adventure, but I’m afraid there is simply something about it that doesn’t sit quite right with me - but maybe I just need to be 10 years old again.

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