An interesting but somewhat flawed outing by Novik. Perhaps the fault is my own; I love the concept of the book (dark and tricksy magic school) and the author (Novik, GOAT dragon-romance writer) and so I had really high expectations for this. The actual book isn't bad; it has an interesting protagonist (a decent witch raised right but who for some reason Fate has marked out for having only comically powerful and evil gifts that she can never actually use. It's like having a selection of nuclear bombs when what you really need is a broom), a *lot* of neat monsters (Novik did a great job in creating her own Monster Manual for the school, the Gelatinous Cubes are a particular standout), and an interesting idea of a magical school (Grimrock cogs and gears, floating in pure Void to keep it isolated and safe from intruders). There's also some common Novik elements like friendship and romance thrown in, kind of at a Ghibli-esque level, which are all fine. For some reason though the whole didn't quite gel for me, the world felt like it didn't quite cohere. The world building didn't quite add up, and had too many clashing elements. One of the main conceits of the book is that young wizards and witches are in grave danger, since A) they haven't learned to defend themselves yet and B) they are a source of magical power that can be consumed by monsters or other mages. And so you have *tons* of young wizards being eaten and dying throughout history, like 75% or so. But the world doesn't really match that, e.g. if you have 75% of your kids dying from monster attacks (and not even counting other factors), you would expect wizard Moms to need 10+ kids just to keep the population at replacement levels, and basically their entire culture should be wrenched by this basic fact. Instead the wizard lives are a bit too normal, and the kids are a bit too blase in the face of constant danger. I get that this is just sort of a conceit of the book, but it still made everything else seem too cartoonish for the book as a whole to work. Or to put it another way, it doesn't work well to have romantic-action-comedic brushes with danger on the one hand, and then on the other hands students are regularly being eaten by monsters/planar mouths that will condemn them to a million years of pure torment. In general it had too much Western consciousness and morality, rather than a more Russian fatalism or Eastern materialism. Given the world they live in.
Edit: I was trying and flailing to put my finger on what my complaint really was, and after re-reading the first 20 pages of VanderMeer's _Bourne_ I can say that my complaint was that this is not _Bourne_. That novel actually captures something of what it would be like, psychologically, to be in constant mortal danger for months and years on end and how it would warp and wrench the mind. Related: at the start of WWI, the British noted that their soldiers kept going ineffective from shell shock, and so in the spirit of Science they did a test where they kept a unit on the front line, in constant action, without any breaks, and then studied how many of the soldiers in the unit went insane over time. The short answer is "all of them". They found that of the survivors, ~95% of them became ineffective over the course of 90 days of combat. Which is again just to say that the character's in this book are way too relatable for the constant danger they are in! Ok, that niggling criticism is done. Now let me say some more nice things about the book. It reads super fast, I loved the "death flick" spell, very creative, I liked how Novik put as much creativity into spell creation as she did with monster creation, even if the spell world building doesn't entirely hold together (but at least no time travel, so it has that going for it). Finally, I liked the extended magic-mirror creation process. Whew! I think I am done now.