No one knows a girls’ friendship like a guy, amIrite? Just kidding, totally sexist of me, just like this entire hetronormative mess of a Hogwarts derivative with more contradictory messaging than Trump’s CDC. It can’t decide if it wants to deconstruct fairy tales or affirm them (think Shrek, with less humor); similarly, the definitions of ‘beauty’ and ‘ugly’ (I hearby challenge Chainani to read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, click here for an fab updated interview with Ms. Wolf), as well as definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ I will tell you the truth here: what it ultimately does is affirm all of those things in the most conventional fashion. Literally. Add the final scene, which will feel semi-cliff-hanger to some, and you have a hot mess of a book.
Chainani clearly did his Rowling research and thought “how can I capitalize on this magical school goldmine?” But instead of wasting time in the mundane world and spreading development over seven books, he accelerates full speed into the magical school with classes, contests, secret night adventures, and survival in the woods. There’s a remote castle in the woods where ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ are each taught. There are teachers who are present but have virtually no authority and a mysterious School Master. Magical creatures abound to enforce the rules. There is even a culminating trial where only one
house side can win (and it’s been Good for two hundred years), followed by a fancy dress ball. If all of this sounds Potter-iffic, I think that’s because it’s meant to, and I also believe that’s why it appeals to many readers despite it’s inherent and profuse problems.
The lead characters are Sophie, a beauty-obsessed twelve year-old looking for a Prince, and Agatha, the introverted and ‘ugly’ daughter of a village ‘witch,’ and her only friend. Every four years, two children disappear from this isolated village in the woods, perhaps to become lead characters in a future fairy tale. One person becoming the ‘good’ character and one person the ‘bad.’ Sophie’s been primping for the ‘Good’ role for years (because according to their definitions, ‘good’ means ‘lovely,’ along with a token good deed or two). When Sophie is kidnapped, Agatha follows, seemingly by accident as she is trying to save her friend. Pink and primped Sophie is dropped at the dark, scary School for Evil, staffed by wolves and goblins, and homely, sloppy Agatha is left at the School for Good, staffed by fairies and princesses. Agatha just wants to go back home, but Sophie sees it as the chance to find her Prince.
Worth seeing what happens, maybe? And at first, Chainani seems to be doing something interesting with making both schools sound equally horrible, just with a different kind of metric. Also like Hogwarts, we get a variety of ‘hands-on’ learning, but what’s unique is that it is about being ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’ as much as magic. Classes on the ‘good’ side include how to be beautiful, and classes on the ‘evil’ side include ‘uglification.’
Eventually some of the classes are combined between the two groups so that we get to see the two interact. These situations particularly suck because the lesson is ‘identifying good’/ ‘identifying your prince/princess,’ set up Sophie and Agatha in opposition to each other over one of the Princes. Sophie becomes obsessed with the idea that she is both in the wrong school and deserves the Prince, and Agatha spends her time helping Sophie achieve her goal, because a kiss from her Prince will solve a riddle.
So, let’s see: three-way love triangle (literally). Attractiveness is about your image. Friendship is a tool to accomplish a goal. Being the subservient ‘helper-friend’ is okay, as long as your friend does some personal growth in the end. Girls operating under the philosophy of “If your true love kisses you, then you can’t be a villain,” with the corallary, “For every Ever, there is only one true love,” followed by “So if a girl doesn’t get asked to the Ball, then she fails and suffers a punishment worse than death. But if a boy doesn’t go to the Ball, he gets half ranks?” Categories of good and evil both suck, except when they don’t. Friendship means being a doormat to your friend’s needs, and not expecting reciprocation in respect or understanding. Do I have that about right? Man, this is some stellar messaging.
I had stayed with it because–major spoiler here–I had read Agatha and Sophie kiss at the end, so I thought the path getting there was going to be extremely deconstructive.
It wasn’t. It was super hetro-normative. And total nonsense, by the way. If you read enough of your fairy tales, you know that evil comes in very beautiful disguises (all the better to fool you with), and that the quality of most young heroes and heroines isn’t that they are beautiful, but that they are kind (to animals, to mysterious old ladies, etc) and that trying to ‘win’ anything without humility only gets things chopped off, or thrown in prison, or turned into geese, or other terrible things.
I would never, ever, ever, recommend this book to anyone. Castle Hangnail takes a much better look at an essentially ‘good’ girl trying on an ‘evil’ role for young people. My ultimate standard of how you can really start deconstructing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is The Good Place–which would have been expecting a lot, I grant you, but I was at least hoping for some elementary work on what ‘good’ really means. Since Chainani never separated out the idea of ‘ugly’ from ‘bad,’ and ‘good’ from ‘beautiful,’ I guarantee that both this book and any tie-ins aren’t going to win any Good Awards in my world.