Review: An Education in Malice by S.T. GibsonAn Education in Malice by S. T. Gibson
Published by Orbit on February 13, 2024
Genres: Gothic, Historical, Paranormal, Queer, Romance
Pages: 368
Format: eBook
Source: Received from publisher

Sumptuous and addictive, An Education in Malice is a dark academia tale of blood, secrets and insatiable hungers from S.T. Gibson, author of the cult hit A Dowry of Blood

Deep in the forgotten hills of Massachusetts stands Saint Perpetua’s College. Isolated and ancient, it is not a place for timid girls. Here, secrets are currency, ambition is lifeblood, and strange ceremonies welcome students into the fold.  

On her first day of class, Laura Sheridan is thrust into an intense academic rivalry with the beautiful and enigmatic Carmilla. Together, they are drawn into the confidence of their demanding poetry professor, De Lafontaine, who holds her own dark obsession with Carmilla.  

But as their rivalry blossoms into something far more delicious, Laura must confront her own strange hungers. Tangled in a sinister game of politics, bloodthirsty professors and magic, Laura and Carmilla must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice in their ruthless pursuit of knowledge.  

For more from S.T. Gibson, check out A Dowry of Blood. 

Sapphic desire, dark academia, obsession. And vampires? I should’ve been eating this up, but instead I thought An Education in Malice fell flat.

Inspired by the gothic vampire classic Carmilla, An Education in Malice is set in the 1960s at a prestigious New England women’s college. We follow two students, Laura and Carmilla, as they become academic and creative rivals in Professor DeLafontaine’s highly selective poetry seminar. The ivy-covered halls and competitive, close-knit environment of an elite women’s college smoothly established a more contemporary gothic atmosphere.

Laura is something of a wallflower, shy and inexperienced with real-world romance. A gifted writer, she’s offered a place in Professor DeLafontaine’s poetry seminar – a privilege that’s always been denied to first year students. She feels out of place amongst her peers, who seem worldly and sophisticated to her. No one more so than Carmilla.

Carmilla relishes her uncontested status as the best writer in the seminar – and as DeLafontaine’s special pet. With her beloved professor directing her attention towards another student for the first time, is it any wonder that Carmilla takes an instant dislike to her? The simmering dislike, rivalry, and sexual tension between the two students is stoked by DeLafontaine, whose hold over her students is profound. The psychosexual games that DeLafontaine plays with Carmilla, and to a lesser extent Laura, illustrate how an imbalance in power can spiral into obsession, control, and abuse. While their relationship is never explicitly sexual, it’s clear that DeLafontaine has groomed Carmilla for some dark purpose…

DeLafontaine is a compelling antagonist for much of the story, with her brilliance and charm matched only by her pathetic jealousies.

Professor DeLafontaine is the novel’s most compelling character by far. Brilliant, sophisticated, attractive, and demanding, it’s easy to see why her students are so desperate to please her. Her personal magnetism, especially in a controlled environment like the classroom, is undeniable. And yet she’s also painfully childish – even pathetic. Her moods are erratic, veering from coldness and rejection to an irrational and possessive jealousy. The narrative makes it clear that this behaviour is unacceptable, and that it stems from DeLafontaine’s personal history and experiences of emotional abuse.

I absolutely loved S. T. Gibson’s descriptive prose when I read A Dowry of Blood last year. Gibson’s lush writing style and antiquated vocabulary was perfectly suited to a historical epistolary novel spanning centuries. I’m not sure what changed this time, but the writing didn’t work nearly as well for me here. I think it’s the combination of the first-person narrative and the setting. I just didn’t believe that young people – even lovelorn poetry students – from the 1960s would think and speak in such “purple” terms.

My other major issue with the story is its lack of narrative focus. An Education in Malice tries to do too much with too few pages. Laura and Carmilla’s “rivalry to romance” pipeline was far too swift and felt sort of forced. Attraction, sure, but now it’s 30 pages later and they’re in love? Hmm. Then there’s the relationship between Carmilla and DeLafontaine, which really could’ve been a novel on its own. THEN there’s the fact that DeLafontaine is also a vampire. Plus the 1960s era setting? I don’t think either of these elements were well integrated, nor were they necessary for the story that I think Gibson was trying to tell.

Overall, An Education in Malice disappointed me. With its thematic similarities and poor execution, it felt like a pale shadow of A Dowry of Blood. Recommended for hard-core fans of Gibson’s writing. Newcomers, I suggest you pick up A Dowry in Blood instead.