Every four years, two children from the village of Gavaldon are stolen and forced to attend the School for Good and the School for Evil. Sophie is determined to go to the School for Good and become a princess; she is beautiful, after all, so where else would she go? She wants her best friend, Agatha, to go too.

Agatha always wears black and isn’t as beautiful as Sophie, so she must be a witch as far as Sophie and the rest of their village is concerned. If Agatha went too, at least Sophie would have a friend at the school.

Agatha doesn’t believe the school exists and doesn’t care what the village thinks of her, or so she wants everyone to think. Her friendship with Sophie is the one connection to the world outside her house, so when Sophie is kidnapped, Agatha follows. 

But when Sophie and Agatha reach the school, there is a mistake. Agatha goes to the School for Good, and Sophie is sent to the School for Evil for lessons in witchcraft. The two girls must work together to find their way back home, but so many things are in their way. Sophie oscillates between wanting to stay and wanting to go. Agatha starts enjoying her lessons. The other pupils have it in for them both. Everyone in the school is against them because whoever heard of a princess and a witch being friends?

The School of Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
The School for Good and Evil, Soman Chainani, published by Harper Collins

There is so much in The School for Good and Evil, it’s hard to know where to start in terms of a review. The central question of this book is: what makes someone good? Is it their actions or their intentions? As an experienced reader, it is evident from the first page that Sophie, despite her appearance, is not a good person. She is selfish and inconsiderate. Everything she does is to further herself and her ambitions, regardless of who she hurts In contrast, Agatha is much more thoughtful, not just of other people, but also the servants at the school. She also sees through the pretty faces of the other princesses in training to their shallowness underneath.

The other children at the school are the offspring of famous princes and princesses or villains, and they are assigned a side based on their parentage or appearance. Their lessons also look like something taken from a Disney movie. The princesses learn how to summon animal helpers or how to make themselves beautiful, while the villains are taught witchcraft and how to be ugly. Chainani takes these lessons and turns them on their heads, revealing the duality in each one. The school is teaching the princesses to walk over other people to get their princes, that popularity is everything, and having a prince is the ultimate goal.

As a life-long supporter of the bad guys, (seriously, who doesn’t love Disney’s Hades and Ursula?) it was the lessons the villains were taught that really hit me. They were instructed on how to change their appearance and become ugly as well as how to work with henchmen. They were repeatedly told they were destined to be alone. I felt for those children being forced to hear that message daily. What child deserves to be told they will always be lonely simply because of their family tree?

Chainani also reveals the sexism in our modern retelling of fairy tales. The school year builds towards the Snow Ball, to which the princes must ask a princess. If there is a prince or princess without a partner, then the prince loses half the points he has accrued for his work over the year, but the princess fails the year. While Sophie only thinks about getting Tedros to ask her to the Ball, Agatha finds the idea that a female student’s worth is set by the male students as ridiculous. She vocalises this both to her fellow students as well as the reader. Such an important message, clearly delivered by a relatable, likeable, character highlights not only the flaws of the school but also the sexism inherent in the fairy tales we all grew up with.

Although this is a story about young women claiming agency over their lives, there is also hope for the boys. The main male character is called Tedros. The son of King Arthur and Guinevere, he witnessed his mother leave his father for someone else and his father’s subsequent decline due to a broken heart. He is suspicious of the pretty princesses who whisper love but are really looking for top marks in their classes so they can have their own fairy tales. Tedros ignores the outward appearance of the princesses, instead drawn to their actions, especially to those that are considered non-standard or display anti-establishment behaviours such as thinking for yourself. I found that a positive message for readers of any gender.

Soman Chainani at Texas Book Festival in Austin, 2018, Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0

This theme of an inconsistency between the outward appearance and what is inside someone continues throughout. Every aspect of the school is infected, and it takes Sophie and  Agatha to expose this to the students. I’m keen to discover how the school survives in the next novel with the students’ new awareness that they are not pre-determined to a specific type of behaviour due to their parents. They are not wholly evil or wholly good. They are just people.

The question of friendship is also an important element and intrinsic to the theme of appearance. Sophie may say she is Agatha’s friend, but her actions demonstrate she is not. This double-standard behaviour is present in the other students too. The wannabe princesses’ cruel treatment of Agatha and the villains’ acceptance of Sophie are at odds not only with their appearance but also the school to which they are assigned. Nothing is as it seems. The characters are at the age where they start to realise the world is not as black and white as it looks and that friendship is more than just a word. Fairy tales were once used as moral stories intended to guide young people. The School for Good and Evil does the same, allowing the reader to experience selfishness and betrayal from trusted friends within the safe confines of a book.

The School for Good and Evil sits in the Middle-Grade shelves in a bookshop or library, but books are a bit like Lego where the age range starts at a given value but has no end age. I discovered this book because I have a daughter who was mature enough to grapple with the topics, and I appreciate the book for its strong message to young women. The School for Good and Evil is a powerful rewriting of fairy tales, which recaptures their initial aim as stories to educate and warn young people, rather than the singing and dancing sugar-fest that fairy tales have become. It is perfect for readers of all ages.

Sarah Deeming is a wedding blogger as well as a book reviewer for the British Fantasy Society. Her favourite genre is horror, particularly zombie apocalypse stories that focus on the living (everyone has their vices). She blames her favouritism on watching Aliens as an impressionable young lady and being blown away by how strong and decisive Sigourney Weaver was as Ripley.

She has a BA in Humanities focusing on English Literature and is a Writers HQ Alumni. Her short stories have appeared in Timeless Tales, Enchanted Conversation, and Three Drops a Cauldron.

During the 2020 Lockdown, Sarah took the chance to re-evaluate her life and her impact on society, leading her to become a volunteer for My Local Pantry, an organisation that reduces food waste by getting good quality food to the people who need it most.

As a life-long lover of books, Sarah is thrilled to be contributing reviews to Breaking the Glass Slipper because it gives her a genuine excuse to spend her days reading. Bliss.