Parallel timelines, centuries apart: Sadima, who can communicate mentally with animals, becomes the servant of two would-be mages, Franklin and Somiss, who are attempting to rediscover the magic that may have led to a world-changing holocaust or war. Centuries later, Hahp, despised by his nouveau riche father, is deposited in the wizards' school. The headmaster, Somiss, tells the incoming class of eleven that only one or none of them will graduate a wizard, and the school's "courses" quickly prove a lesson in cruelty: the boys are made to starve until and unless they can produce food by magic, and they are all warned against helping each other, although some--especially Hahp and his streetwise roommate Gerrard--manage to sneak each other tiny, terrifying bits of unacknowledged and unacknowledgeable help.
The prose is sometimes clunky and Duey is too fond of em-dashes, but the characterization and the growing feeling of entrapment across both storylines have real force. It's clear what benefits Sadima has had from growing up in a loving family, even with her depressed and sometimes abusive father; none of the boys in Hahp's storyline appears to have any kind of emotional resources with which to fight the competitiveness and cruelty of the wizard school. I am curious to know what happens to Sadima and even the less likable Hahp and how Franklin and Somiss' plans became the wizard school, although some of what went wrong is already clear.
Somiss, although cruel, selfish, and spoiled, also has some awkward interpersonal attributes that make me wonder if he suffers manic-depression as well, particularly the surge in energy that accompanies fasting for him.