The School for Good and Evil
by Soman Chainani
Retellings of classic fairy tales have a history as long as gossip itself, and continue to be popular in pop culture. Among retellings is Soman Chainani's debut novel, The School for Good and Evil, which debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. In this hilarious novel, Chainani takes the generic, quasi-medieval setting of fairy tales and reinvents it to subvert countless fairy tale tropes while telling a story about friendship between two girls.
Sophie and Agatha live in the village of Gavaldon, a generic fairy tale-esque village in the middle of some woods. Every year, on the eleventh night of the eleventh month, two children disappear. The legends say that a School Master kidnaps the children and takes them into a school where one of them learns Good and the other learns Evil. The children would eventually graduate into fairy tales as a hero and a villain.
Sophie, the most beautiful girl in the village, has spent most of her life doing "good" deeds and primping herself to prepare to be kidnapped into the School for Good. Agatha, on the other hand, lives by a graveyard, wears black frocks, has a pet cat - looks as if she's perfect for the School for Evil.
However, when the kidnapping happens, the girls find that their purported paths have been switched - Agatha is a student of the School for Good while Sophie is thrown into the School for Evil.
The School for Good and Evil challenges a lot of tropes introduced by fairy tales that a lot of us grow up accepting, such as that attributes such as ugliness, the color black, and dirtiness = evil, while attractiveness, the color white (and other pastels), and purity (pristine surroundings, pure intentions) = good.
Chainani also questions the ideology of "goodness" and also our subjective connotations of what it means to "hurt" or "help" someone, and whether it's really so good to "give" something. The five rules that separate Good from Evil are:
- The Evil attack. The Good defend.
- The Evil punish. The Good forgive.
- The Evil hurt. The Good help.
- The Evil take. The Good give.
- The Evil hate. The Good love. (page 157)
Take Rule 4 and apply it to the fate of Good animals who "help" Princesses:
"Animals love to help princesses for so many reasons!" said Princess Uma, stopping at the water's edge. "Because we sing pretty songs, because we give them shelter in the scary Woods, because they only wish they could be as beautiful and beloved as--"
Uma and the girls turned. Agatha held up the storybook's last page--a painting of the stag ripped to pieces by monsters as the princess escaped.
"How is that a happy ending?"
"If you aren't good enough to be a princess, then you're honored to die for one, of course," Uma smiled, as if she would learn this lesson soon enough. (page 130)
A lot of distinguishing between good and evil starts with the appearance, but the book also addresses deception (when a Good or Evil person is disguised as the other). Agatha struggles between the School's institutionally-enforced dichotomy between Good and Evil because she was placed in the School of Good, but her appearance and reclusive outward demeanor makes her appear as if she belongs with the School of Evil:
"What if my face is Evil?"
Her teacher flinched at her tone.
"I'm far from home, I I've lost my only friend, everyone here hates me, and all I want is a way to find some kind of happy ending," Agatha said, red-hot. "But you can't even tell me the truth. My ending is not about what Good I do or what's inside me. It's about how I look." Spit flew out of her mouth.
"I never even had a chance." (page 372)
Despite this book being full of hilarious moments (mostly in which Sophie attempts to do Good deeds at school), it also contains some sincere moments of growth for Agatha's character, in which she emerges from beneath Sophie's flamboyant shadow and paves her own destiny. As her confidence increases, Agatha transforms from the reluctant sidekick to her own heroine, and also realizes that there are things in-between Good and Evil (page 423).
Overall, this book helped me develop an appreciation for fairy tale villains for their flair and passion. With their contrasting personalities, Sophie and Agatha complement each other well as friends (and maybe frenemies). I absolutely loved the clever reinvention and subversion of fairy tale tropes in The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani.
I look forward to reading the second book, A World Without Princes, which actually came out this April. The third book, The Last Ever After, will be released on July 21, 2015.
Find out more about The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani: