The School for Good and Evil is a long, intricate fairy tale about two girls, Sophie and Agatha, who are kidnapped from their small town of Gavaldon and taken to a school for fairy tales. Every four years, another pair of children are kidnapped, and this year, Sophie is determined to be one of them. She is beautiful and vain, goes out of her way to rack up good deeds, and believes she will be a princess sent to the School of Good. Agatha, a charity friend of hers, lives in a graveyard, hates her reflection, and doesn’t believe in the School at all. Once they are kidnapped, though, everything goes wrong, with Agatha delivered to Good, and Sophie delivered to Evil.
The book had an interesting concept, and I liked the way it played out. I wasn’t sure at first. Sophie was obviously Evil from the beginning. All her good deeds were selfish, and she was too self-centered to be truly good. Agatha was clearly Good despite her avoidance of people and her bad looks and her scary reputation. All during their kidnapping, her motive is to rescue Sophie, period. That’s not to say she’s without selfishness – she DOES want to go home – but for the most part, Agatha is Good, and Sophie is Evil. Selfishness vs selflessness, wrapped in a disguise of beauty vs ugliness.
When I really started to find this book interesting was when Sophie caved in on herself. She loses everything she loves – though in reality, she only loves those things shallowly, because all she truly loves is herself – and begins to embrace evil. That’s when she became an interesting character, rather than a caricature, and when I started to care about her. Agatha, on the other hand, begins slightly shallow in development, quickly grows into an interesting person, and then starts to lose that interest as Sophie develops. This may or may not have been done on purpose: One of the big things the girls are taught in the book is that a nemesis grows stronger or weaker in contrast to themselves.
I liked the way the climax played out, and the fact that in the end, everyone is both good and evil, no one is really one thing. I liked that the Evil kids wanted to be accepted, and that the Good kids had to learn to be less shallow. By the end, all the kids grew from flat, two-dimensional fairy tale fodder into round characters with depth and dimension. That was fantastic.
There were only two things that I really had a problem with, and made this a less than perfect reading experience. The first is the beginning. I have a really hard time buying Agatha and Sophie’s friendship, and it doesn’t seem particularly well thought out as the book begins. The books seems to flounder for quite a bit, with inconsistencies in characters’ personalities, that sort of thing. The second is the ending, where Sophie comes back to life so that she and Agatha can magically transport back home. Before Sophie’s return, there’s this perfect storybook ending:
Bloodied students turned in stunned silence to see their rotted, malevolent leader, frozen over the body of the witch who saved a princess’s life. The body of one of their own.
And then, on the next page:
“You’re not Evil, Sophie,” Agatha whispered, touching her decayed cheek. “You’re human.”
Sophie, witch and savior, should have died. Instead, she comes back to life at Agatha’s kiss, and the two leave the fairy tale world behind. And…I just don’t buy it. They were never that great of friends to begin with, and Sophie betrays Agatha again and again, up until the moment when she saves her. Every single thing she does is selfish prior to that very last moment. Should Sophie be redeemed then? I think so, yes, but I think that in bringing her back to life, she will only have the opportunity to destroy that redemption. Sometimes, death is a beautiful thing, a powerful and necessary thing, and it made me sad that Chainani denied it here. Perhaps it was because this was a children’s book, or perhaps it was meant to be irony, but either way, it ruined the ending for me, and made The School of Good and Evil a good book, rather than a great one.