Knightly Academy is, in a sentence, a conservative Harry Potter knockoff without magic.
It’s not as bad as it sounds! But the Harry Potter parallels are undeniable: Young orphan servant boy gets, by chance and plot, chosen to attend a highly selective academy educating “Knights” of the realm of this alternate reality England. It’s set in a vaguely 1880s-seeming world where the parts of our UK have different names, and slightly different history, but the rest of the world seems more or less the same.
Henry (yes, really) goes off to get an education. All the usual pupils are high-born and some go out of their way to be classist arrogant assholes, very directly recalling Draco Malfoy. His friends are the Funny Guy Who Likes Food and the Proper Guy Who Will Scold Mischief. There’s also The Girl, who is more Ginny than Hermione. Blah bullying, blah higher stakes than expected. The teacher responsible for them hates them due to their low birth and wants to see them kicked out – he’s intimidating and has a terrifying stare and also he is Snape.
Of course, it turns out he is not the Real Evil Guy, because that is the role reserved for the very sympathetic teacher whom Henry ~trusted~ because of course.
One thing was noticeable to me, though, was how in every place where Harry Potter chose to be progressive/egalitarian, Knightly Academy chooses to be conservative. There’s a sub-plot about quasi-Scotland, which has recently undergone a change in government. The new state is: communist, racist, oppressive, highly religious, intolerant, evil, warmongering, to say the least. Imagine a mix of Russia and China through the eyes of Ayn Rand, and you’re not far off. In comparison, the class system in quasi-England is somewhat praised, with the slow and careful opening to dirty commoners seen as the height of tolerance. It doesn’t really matter in a book for kids, you might say, but I found it a persistent wrongness in the head of my mind, that this would be the evil straw man the author would choose to conjure up.
To offset this, Knightley Acadmey is clearly in favour of gasp providing an education for women and not being an asshole to your servants. To champion diversity, the cast consists of Henry (boring white guy) and his two friends, who are of Indian and Jewish descent, respectively. This felt more like a nod than actual engagement, but at the same time, nods like that are nice to see, too (especially if the author does not have to take to Twitter to retcon them). Of course, there are a total of three female characters: the giggling, superstitious servant side character, quasi-Buffy the vampire slayer sassy badass manic Victorian dream girl, and her terrible and uptight grandmother who makes her life hell. Yup.
The book definitely carries off decent writing and worldbuilding, and I enjoyed (for the most part) reading it despite the predictable plot and weak characters. It’s no worse than Harry Potter, and plays to the same level of writing, the same readership, the same general vibe. If you’re into a light Harry-Potter-alike, this is a good book to read.