“Welcome to the School for Good and Evil, where best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
With her glass slippers and devotion to good deeds, Sophie knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and join the ranks of past students like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White. Meanwhile, Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks and wicked black cat, seems a natural fit for the villains in the School for Evil.
The two girls soon find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School for Good, thrust among handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.
But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are . . . ?”
I read Soman Chainani’s debut novel in one day. I’d seen the gorgeous cover for the book on a fairytale site I frequent and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the story. My hopes were high. I dove into the novel headfirst and immersed myself into his created world where Good and Evil are not what they seem.
At the beginning, I thought the book was going to be about two friends who discover that physical beauty is nothing compared to the condition of their souls. Sophie was physically gorgeous but her attitude towards others was shallow and at times even cruel. Agatha did not consider herself physically attractive but through the story she is revealed to be a brave, kind, and complex character.
After their placement, Sophie was furious at being put into the School for Evil and did everything in her power to “fix” the situation. She was not above manipulation, violence, or seduction to get what she wanted. At one point, after she’d performed her first act of pure evil, she decided to seduce her way into people’s good graces by wearing skimpy outfits to flaunt her body. This was not shown as acceptable in the story, but the scenes where the author describes Sophie’s transformation are too risqué for younger readers.
At the heart of the conflict is a handsome prince (Surprised? Me either) who is more annoying than charming. Prince Tedros is obsessed with his looks, and the looks of others. He hates Agatha from the beginning because she looks different from the “beautiful” girls in the school. Tedros is physically attracted to Sophie and vows to help her get out of the School for Evil. Through a series of events, it becomes clear to Tedros that Sophie is not kind at heart and his affections shift to Agatha. The scenes where Tedros was allowed to express his point of view were supposed to create complexity in the character, but only made me roll my eyes at the stereotypical “misunderstood hero” who couldn’t be held accountable for his actions because he’d had a rough childhood. Despite this, he did grow as a character and honestly he and Agatha made a great pair, but this was only explored near the end of the novel after the reader had been exposed to his melodramatic side for over four-hundred pages.
The ending of the novel was vague (to many readers) about the course of love and this opened the doorway for the sequel A World Without Princes in which Chainani says that not only will the lines between good and evil be blurred, but so will the lines of gender expectations.
I was severely disappointed by this story because of the content being explored in a novel for a target audience of middle grade readers (ages nine to twelve) and I was confused as to the message being sent to readers. For clarification, I decided to do some research on the author. In interviews he stated that he wanted to re-invent the ideas of good and evil in his story to show kids today that they do not have to be what society demands of them. He wanted to create an unfamiliar world for the readers where conventional ideas are cast aside and people are allowed to explore different ideas of morality and gender. He wanted to show that we are all human, that we all have areas of light and dark in our hearts, and are all in are in need of redemption. While this is true, his “redemption” or conclusion to the story caused more harm than good.
Blurring the lines between good and evil does not necessarily equal a complex story. Some novels with a clear cut “good vs. evil” theme have seemed contrived as of late, but I blame authorial laziness and not the theme itself. It’s time for authors to leave behind the idea of “perfect” heroes and “one dimensional” villains. That’s one thing Chainani and I have in common. But I believe the exploration of humanity’s utter depravity and our desperate need for redemption should draw readers towards hope, not point them down a path of moral ambiguity.