Galadriel—or “El”— is a student in her junior year at the Scholomance, a school for wizards in the United Kingdom. The Scholomance is set into a void outside of the normal world. The classrooms in the center of the school remain in place while the dormitories rotate downward each year. The senior class always ends up at the bottom for graduation.
Angry that a popular fellow student named Orion Lake has just chased a soul-eater into her room and killed it, El shoves Orion out of her room and slams the door. El would have liked to fight the soul-eater herself to enhance her reputation. Instead, her fellow students’ obsession with Orion will just increase. El is also upset because Orion’s heroics have left her room covered in foul-smelling slime from the soul-eater, which she must clean up. She summons a spellbook to learn cleaning spells from the void of darkness that comprises one wall in her room. El does jumping-jacks to generate mana (energy) which is necessary to cast the spell.
El’s anger with Orion goes deeper than the incident that just occurred. Hundreds of students normally die during a school year, but Orion keeps saving them. El believes that student deaths are needed to power the Scholomance and she thinks that Orion’s heroics actually just create more problems. El knows that during her senior year, she will have to fight her way across the graduation hall that is filled with maleficaria—monsters that feed on wizards. The school once had a mechanism that cleansed the graduation hall, but it broke and one is able fix it.
Casting spells in the presence of non-magical people (“mundanes”) requires extra mana. A wizard who does not have enough mana can use malia, which is energy drained from living things nearby, instead. El suspects that her friend Yi Liu uses malia, and that an American student named Jack Westing also does. El learned from her mother (“Mum,” who is a magical healer) that using malia leads to the destruction of one’s own body, as well.
El’s magical specialization is destruction, which makes her unpopular. Her only close family is Mum, who lives in a hippie commune in Wales, where El is not welcome. El’s father died in the school during his senior year. When El visited her father’s family in Mumbai, her great-grandmother had a vision that El would be very dangerous, forcing Mum rescue her. El knows that she cannot live at the commune with Mum after she graduates, so she wants to join a wizard enclave that will value her destructive capabilities. But since her family is not rich or famous, it will be difficult for her. When El walks with Liu toward the cafeteria, students ask her to retell the story of Orion saving her.
After dinner, El realizes that she needs to fix the door to her room. This will require a trip to the workshop in the lower levels of the school where maleficaria wait to eat students. El asks if anyone wants to accompany her, knowing that they will want something in exchange. She declines Jack’s offer, since she knows he will try to steal her life force when they are alone but El accepts Orion offer to help. While on the walk down the dark stairs to the workshop, El starts to reprimand Orion over the incident with the soul-eater in her room. Orion tells her that monsters don’t seek him out, but that when he kills them, he can take their energy. While the two are retrieving the supplies from the workshop, several chairs in the room transform into monsters. El and Orion are able to escape with the supplies that El needs after Orion fights off the monsters.
El repairs her door while talking to Orion. When he asks why she doesn’t use outside mana to fix the door, she responds by tugging at his life force—an act that for most wizards would require a complicated ritual. Startled, Orion calls El a maleficer, an evil wizard that uses malia. El scoffs at this suggestion and explains that if she were in fact a maleficer, she would have drained his life force in the workshop. Orion then asks El about Luisa, a girl on their floor who has disappeared. Privately, El assumes that Jack is responsible, but she just tells Orion that there are other maleficers, without naming Jack. When Orion expresses frustration that El will not thank him for being helpful, she tells him to leave and then slams the door when he does.
There are no teachers at the Scholomance; all learning is by independent study, with magical guidance from the school itself. El has chosen to specialize in incantation rather than alchemy or artiface, and she’s learned many languages so she can learn more spells.
Aadhya, another student, invites El to walk to breakfast. El has become more popular at the Scholomance, but that is only because of the attention that Orion has been showing her. El and Aadhya are met by Orion on the way, and he walks El to her language class, along with El’s classmates Nkoyo, Jowani, and Cora. Once El and Orion are alone outside of the class, El confronts him about the attention he is giving her. When Orion assures El that he is not interested in her romantically, she realizes that he’s been following her to make sure that she doesn’t attack other students. El realizes that Orion does not believe her about Luisa, but she does nothing to dispel the growing rumors that Orion is dating (or trying to date) her.
El realizes that her best plan to survive graduation is to have fifty full crystals of mana saved up and to unleash her destruction powers. After a day of increased popularity, El returns to her room. There’s a knock on her door and she opens it, assuming it’s Orion, but it is Jack. Jack stabs El in the stomach and closes the door. El lies on the floor, unable to reach her crystals. She considers using her powers to drain Jack’s life force, but that would make her a maleficer, which she believes would be worse than death. Suddenly, Orion opens the door.
After Orion kills Jack with magical fire and throws his burnt corpse into the hall, El directs Orion to find a magical healing bandage that Mum made. Once El is stabilized, she tells Orion that he should return to his room. Two students in the same room attract many more maleficaria at night. But Orion stays to protect El, fighting the monsters as they appear. El gives Orion useful—but rude—advice as he fights. Orion’s ability to drain mana from the maleficaria quickly fills him with excess mana. El tells Orion that he can store extra mana in her crystals (which will benefit her more than him). Orion is quite surprised by the actual crystals, since they are very well known. El reveals to Orion that they were made by her mother, the famous healer Gwen Higgins—and she tells Orion that she likes to keep this secret.
When the exhausted Orion and El leave her room in the morning, gossip and rumors about them increase. Orion helps El and is very attentive to her injured condition, which all the most popular students—including those of the London enclave and of Orion’s New York enclave—take notice. El needs help with her semester project, a magical mirror, and Orion offers to help her—this time out of kindness. Seeing an opportunity to increase her social standing, Aadhya offers to help as well. In the cafeteria, El is joined for lunch by Orion, Nkoyo and Aadhya. The top members of the London and New York enclaves join the table, too, because both groups want to secure Orion after graduation. Neither group is interested in El beyond Orion’s attachment to her. El is equally rude to both groups.
El worries that her rudeness to the enclave kids will lead them to talk Orion out of hanging out with her, so she asks Orion and Aadhya if they can help her with her mirror project immediately after lunch. The three travel to the workshop and start combining their magic powers to form the mirror. While they are trying to smooth and enchant the glass, two sirenspiders attack them. Orion destroys the maleficaria spiders, while Aadhya hides and El finishes her incantation.
When El returns to her room and hangs the mirror, a ghostly face appears and tells her that she will bring death and destruction everywhere she goes. El is tired of such prophecies, so she covers the mirror and goes to sleep. The next day at lunch, two students, Chloe and Magnus, ask Orion to sit with them. Not wanting to look like she tags along wherever Orion goes, El sits by herself. While sitting alone, El becomes angry that she is vulnerable to maleficaria attack and that so many other students shun her, despite her having never wronged them. She also knows that even if she survives the Scholomance, maleficaria will continue to hunt her.
When Aadhya, Liu, and some other students sit at her table, the vulnerable El tries not to cry. She tells Aadhya that the mirror is likely cursed, since it tried giving her advice before she even asked it any questions. On the way out of the cafeteria, when Orion asks El why she did not sit with him, she makes a snide remark about her not having obtained “hanger-on status.” Orion leaves upset and El realizes that Orion wants to be her friend precisely because she does not fawn over him. This irritates her since it suggests that Orion is a, in fact, a decent person. El catches up to Orion and explains that in the cafeteria, “seating arrangements are an act of war,” and they realize that they are now friends.
El and Orion continue to spend time together as friends. Aadhya tells El that she should use her friendship with Orion to obtain status and secure a position in one of the enclaves, but El wants to be accepted for her own powers. Aadhya tells El, “you feel like it’s going to rain,” meaning that El gives off a sense of bad luck.
El shows Orion a desk that she has found in the library, hidden deep in the aisles of books. Although the library is the safest place in the school, maleficaria can still find ways in. Its large, comfortable reading rooms are always claimed by the students from the top enclaves. El and Orion argue about how often students are attacked. Orion doesn’t want to believe that El was attacked several times a week before they started hanging out. El points out that he and the other New York kids get attacked far less, due to their alliances and their additional resources, such as Orion’s magical watch, which tells him when the New York enclave kids are in trouble. When Orion suddenly jumps from his seat and runs down the nearest aisle, El realizes that he must be going to save the New York kids from danger, and that this may be an opportunity for her to show her powers.
While El chases Orion, the library itself tries to slow her down. The aisles become longer, and a golden book appears on one of the shelves. El stows the book in her bag but continues toward the reading rooms, where she can hear fighting. There are at least four maleficaria fighting Orion and the other New York kids—a perfect opportunity for El to impress. El realizes that the golden book was an excellent prize and figures out that the library is trying to stop her from noticing something. El turns and sees a maw-mouth, one of the most dangerous monsters known to wizards and nearly impossible to kill. El’s father was killed by a maw-mouth, saving El’s mother during their graduation. Instead of attacking her, this maw-mouth turns toward the freshman living quarters. Passing up the opportunity to impress everyone by saving the New York enclave kids, El chases the maw-mouth, knowing that no one will witness her potential death or success.
El shields herself with magic and lets the maw-mouth consume her. Once inside, she cast every murder spell she knows and destroys the monster from the inside. Unaware of El’s heroic actions, Orion shows up shortly after, relieved that she escaped the library.
Orion carries El back to her room, but she does not tell him what happened to her. No one saw her fight the maw-mouth, and no one (except perhaps Orion) would believe her. The other students are amazed at Orion having saved everyone in the library. El is physically and emotionally exhausted. In the cafeteria, Orion kills some maleficaria and tries to transfer the mana to El. She releases it immediately into one of her mother’s spells that help those around her feel more centered. The effects of Liu’s slow malia use are removed, and she looks healthier. El is concerned that if she ever did become a maleficer, she would be unstoppable: stealing life force and killing everyone in her path.
El takes stock of her crystals and finds that two are cracked and ten have been drained, but she is too tired to exercise to fill them with mana, so she starts to crochet a blanket instead. The frustration of this activity will slowly fill the crystals. She thinks about asking Orion to help refill them but knows that it could get him excommunicated from the New York enclave. When El decides to investigate the golden book that she recovered from the library, she is finally rewarded. The book contains the Golden Stone sutras, the original spells to build an enclave and the protected magical space that it occupies. These spells are thousands of years old, and many have been lost over the centuries. One spell in particular, a matter phase spell, is extremely valuable. El speaks lovingly to the book, believing that this will keep the book from becoming lost. She tells Aadhya about the book and Aadhya agrees to help her auction the spell. Five of the highest bidders will receive a copy.
When El and a group of students see a senior student sitting by himself in the cafeteria, they know he has done something terrible. Gossip in the food line reveals that the student, Todd Quayle, “poached” another student. Todd, who is from the New York enclave, went into another senior’s room the night before and shoved him into the void, stealing his room. Orion confronts Todd, trying to make him feel guilty about killing a fellow student. Todd says that since Orion has been saving so many kids, the maleficaria are getting hungry and venturing farther into the school than usual. Todd says that he even saw a maw-mouth go by, which scares everyone in the cafeteria.
In the library, El and Orion meet with some Dubai enclave kids, along with the students Ibrahim and Nadia, because they can help El understand the Arabic writing in the golden book. The New York enclave is infuriated by this meeting, because they misinterpret it as a sign that El and Orion have chosen to join the Dubai enclave. In retaliation, one of the New York enclave kids, Magnus, sets loose a “crawler,” a small but deadly twist of paper designed to kill El. The crawler creeps toward El, but Orion notices it and destroys it. El knows that Magnus tried to kill her, and that he did so with the support of Chloe and the other New York kids. El goes to her room, angry about the dilemma she finds herself in: she has a perfectly good reason to retaliate against the New York enclave, but if she destroys anyone, it will validate all the rumors about her.
Aadhya visits El in her room and asks her if she killed the maw-mouth—since no one has seen it and if it were still alive it would be on a killing and eating rampage. Aadhya has realized that El is very powerful after seeing her complete the magic mirror and discover the golden book. El throws up, recalling what the inside of the maw-mouth was like, but then nods to Aadhya. She tells El that she will be sought after by every enclave, but El yells that she does not want to be on any of their teams.
El ponders a deep inner conflict. When she was younger, she’d wanted to join an enclave and be valued for her powers. But now, faced with the chance to join an enclave, she cannot accept the imbalance of power implicit within them. All non-enclave students act as servants to the enclave kids in an effort to join their ranks, and the kids who do not get into the enclaves usually end up dead. El wants no part of such a system, even if it would bring her luxury and comfort.
Aadhya and Liu join El on a trip to the bathroom so that they can keep watch for monsters and take showers. Now healthy without the corruption of malia use in her system, Liu mentions that she needs to cut her hair. Aadhya suggests that she could use the hair to string a lute using a sirenspider leg. The three discuss a trade in which Liu would get a copy of El’s enclave-building spell and Aadhya would get Liu’s hair. El knows that this would mean that the three are in an official alliance until graduation.
Since El’s new spellbook has Arabic in it, the magic of the school decides that she is now studying Arabic, in addition to the other languages she studies for her spells. Liu saves a seat for El in their writing workshop and says that she is rewriting a song spell. Liu plays the song, without lyrics. El can tell that Liu has not gone back to malia: she still looks healthy. Liu admits to El that she is “pretty behind on mana,” which would be a liability in the alliance. In spite of this, El still wants the alliance with her and Aadhya.
When Orion says he has work to do in the lab, El heads to the library. There, Chloe invites her to join the New York kids, but El turns her down because she suspects another plot. Chloe follows El down the aisle of books and tells her not to go to her desk, because the New York kids have set a magical trap for her. Chloe tells El that the New York kids suspect El is a maleficer who has somehow enchanted Orion. El responds by telling Chloe that she is not dating Orion and that she doesn’t want to be part of the New York enclave, or any enclave. Chloe reveals to El that Orion has never actually been friends with anyone, despite everyone trying to gain his favor. El tells Chloe that she should try treating Orion like a person.
El, Aadhya, and Liu get an assortment of snacks at the snack bar and share them in Aadhya’s room. On the stretch of wall between the bathrooms, they write their three names as a show to everyone that they are in an alliance. El has a dream about her mother in which she tells her mother not to worry because she has friends and is not joining an enclave. The next morning, Orion is very tired. El does a demonstration of the phase shift spell in the workshop for all the potential bidders. She bends a piece of wood—planning to make a carrying case for the golden book—and also liquefies silver. One of the seniors asks El to make liquid nitrogen out of the air, but before she can try, the mechanisms in the school send grinding vibrations through the room, causing instruments to fall from shelves. When students start to flee, El notices that Orion is headed downstairs instead of retreating upstairs with everyone else.
El follows Orion to reprimand him for venturing down toward the dangers of the senior dorms and graduation hall, but she finds him fighting a grogler, a large jellyfish-like monster that regenerates its tentacles when they are cut off. El produces liquid nitrogen from the air, just as she would have done in the workshop demonstration. The monster freezes and dies. The graduation monsters have broken through the barrier and made a small hole in the bottom staircase. They are very hungry because Orion has saved so many kids. Orion has been patrolling at night. He and El argue, and she tells him that his new efforts to be a “white knight” will not undo the “white-knighting” he has done all year.
At lunch, El, Orion, Ibrahim, Liu, and Aadhya discuss the need to fix the barrier at the bottom of the stairs. They come up with a plan in which El will liquefy the iron wall and Aadhya will fold in carbon to make steel and then put the wall back, where El will make it solid again. This will require a great deal of mana. They ask Orion if he can use the power-sharer that the New York enclave brought. Orion answers that he must ask, since he is irresponsible with mana. El realizes that Orion has given excessive amounts of mana to the power-sharer—and that the other New York kids have been taking advantage of him, even convincing him that he’s not responsible enough to decide how to use the mana that he has captured. When the group asks Chloe for help instead, she is uncertain and afraid of the danger, so they agree to conduct a test run. Chloe gives El and Aadhya bracelets that link them to the New York power-sharer, so that they do not need to use their own mana.
The barrier-fixing group successfully tests the method. They figure that they can perform assembly-line-style and do the wall all at once. They know that they cannot ask the seniors for help, because the seniors would be happy to let the graduation maleficaria escape the bottom level and eat all the other classes of students—giving the seniors a much better chance at graduation. While leaving the workshop, the group overhears some seniors discussing actively breaking the barrier further. After the seniors pass, the group decides to fix the barrier immediately.
The repair goes well until a group of four seniors arrives and threatens the barrier-fixing group. Orion tries to stand up to them but is restrained by a fire whip. The seniors have been practicing combat for graduation, so El and her friends are outmatched. El rules out using her murder magic, since that would take her on a path of evil. The group pulls down the remaining section of wall, revealing a giant argonet monster, waiting to get through. The four seniors run away. El uses the near limitless mana from the New York power-sharer and disintegrates the monster. Through combined effort, the group gets the wall back in place, and the magic barrier is restored. Only a single bird-like shrike monster passes through, and Orion kills it. Aadhya is rewarded with a tooth from the argonet and the shrike’s beak, to add to the magical lute that she is crafting. The group informs the students above that the barrier is restored, and Chloe apologizes for having run away during the fighting.
At dinner, El is part of a large group that gathers six tables together to discuss the idea of calling a tribunal to punish the four seniors. Clarita Acevedo-Cruz, the senior valedictorian, approaches the group and speaks to them. She says that it isn’t fair to the seniors that the graduation hall that they must pass through will be flooded with maleficaria as a result of Orion’s heroics in saving over six hundred students. After some exchanges, Clarita and El agree on a plan to fix the cleansing mechanisms in the graduation hall, which will clear out the majority of the maleficaria for the seniors as well as for future classes. The various enclaves offer seniors guaranteed spots if they volunteer to join the mission to fix the cleansing mechanism and eventually a team is chosen. It will include Orion, who will fight monsters, and five incanters (including El and Clarita), who will cast a group shield spell. The mission is planned for the morning of graduation to allow as much time for practice and preparation as possible.
On the morning of graduation, the team descends through maintenance tunnels to the lowest level of the school to reach the graduation hall. Then they fight their way across the hall and start working on the machinery. Orion fights many monsters, and a few students die. After repairing the machinery, the incantation group activates a spell that quickly pulls them back to the senior residence hall. A bell rings, indicating that the cleansing will start, followed by the senior hall dropping down to the graduation hall. El and Orion run up the stairs as a wall of mortal flame starts to fill the hallways. Thinking that they are going to die, Orion kisses El. She hits him with her knee and starts to cast her own mortal flame spell to act as a firebreak.
After Orion and El survive the cleansing mortal flame, he looks up at her with genuine appreciation and love, but they are swarmed by students before they can speak. El leaves while everyone asks Orion to retell his heroic deeds from the mission. El heads to the freshly re-stocked workshop, where she grabs a forge apron and supplies for Aadhya. El returns to her room to sleep but is visited by Chloe before she can do so. Chloe offers a sincere apology for her prior actions, and El returns the bracelet that linked her to the New York mana reservoir. When El again declines an invitation to the New York enclave, Chloe tells El that she would still like to be her friend.
After some sleep, El is visited by Liu and Aadhya, who have also acquired supplies. Liu shares that she has several mice and can train them to be familiars, which will protect Aadhya and El while they sleep. El tells them about Orion kissing her, and they all joke about the dangers of becoming pregnant while at the Scholomance.
Orion visits El and expresses his feelings toward her. Orion wants El to be a part of his life and wants to date her, but he doesn’t want that to push her away from him. El declines his dating offer, but she does assure him that she will continue to be a part of his life. Afterwards, El and Orion head to the cafeteria for the induction ceremony, where new freshmen are teleported into the school.
The freshmen come to the hall with letters from the outside world. El has never received a letter, because it is expensive to pay someone to carry one. When a freshman announces that there is a letter from Gwen Higgins to Galadriel, many students realize that El’s mother is a famous healer. The letter, a tiny, rolled-up strip, contains only one line…
“My darling girl, I love you, have courage, and keep far away from Orion Lake.”