JOINT DISCUSSION (WITH SPOILERS): The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik
In our second post on The Golden Enclaves (you can find the spoiler free part one here), book three in Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy, we discuss spoilers from start to finish, so if you’re spoiler-wary, avoid this discussion or come back after you’ve read the book (if you’re not, please join us in this comment thread; we plan to make it chock full of spoilers too).
Jennie: It seemed pretty obvious that Orion was not going to actually be dead the first time, at the beginning of the book. When he’s in jeopardy much later in the book, did you feel like there might indeed be a dark ending where he didn’t survive?
Janine: I read a lot of theories last year, including one that Orion was a maleficer. When Gwen told El she sensed this awful hunger in Orion I started worrying about that. It stressed me out so much I peeked at the last page. So I knew Orion would survive, but nevertheless, when Li was telling El she had to kill him and El was so torn up, I was terrified! Novik did such a good job of scaring me that I had to remind myself about the last page to reassure myself. What about you, were you afraid of a dark ending?
Jennie: I really was. It just felt like signs in the big showdown scene were pointing that way – I mean, they obviously were, on the surface, but even beneath the surface there was this undercurrent of doom and dread that made me think that El killing Orion would be a fitting ending. (That said, I was glad she didn’t!)
Janine: That would have been so depressing, I can only breathe a sigh of relief.
There are a number of twists in this book—Orion is part maw-mouth, enclaves are powered by malia, Liesel isn’t as unprincipled as we thought, great-great-grandmother Deepthi loves El and made the prophecy to protect her, El didn’t get the sutras for the reasons she thought, Liu is in danger of something horrible, and more. Which twist surprised you the most?
Jennie: I really wasn’t expecting the twist with Deepthi. It had just never occurred to me to take that part of the story on anything but face value.
The rest were all surprising in the sense that I didn’t expect them, but they made sense, you know? Not that the Deepthi revelation didn’t, but it felt like more of a twist, whereas the others felt like new information that in context, made sense. I was very happy for the twist though, because I think it helped to heal El somewhat.
What revelations came as an entire surprise to you?
Janine: All the ones I listed above, as well as the last one about Arjun’s sacrifice. The biggest shocker for me was what was being done to Liu. It was a one-two punch: I never dreamed of it and it also hit me really hard. So hard I didn’t want it to be true. The one about Orion was equally horrible, but not quite as shocking because by the time he told El I was braced for something bad to be going on with him.
Jennie: The whole sequence with Liu, from the time they realize something is wrong with her until she’s rescued (and after!) was very distressing to read. I have a soft spot for Liu going back to when El realized she was compelled to use malia to protect her cousins; she’s such a gentle character. But it would have been horrifying no matter who it was done to. That it was Liu just made it that much worse.
What revelations were you expecting or had guessed ahead of time? I remember you had some theories at the end of the last book.
Janine: A few. The one I’m proudest of myself for is one I didn’t see anyone else predict: that at least one if not both of Orion’s parents was a maleficer and responsible for the killing of the entire murdered Scholomance class. That they took the malia from that mass murder and used it to conceive a child with Orion’s unusual abilities. I was pretty damn on point with that one!
(I still didn’t imagine that Orion was part mal, though—that part shocked me.)
Jennie: I really never made the maw-mouth/Orion connection at all, nor the maw-mouth/enclave connection. I had long suspected that the prophecy about El could be interpreted as her bringing down the existing power structure (putting aside the killing thousands part) of the enclaves.
Janine: Same here. Did you anticipate or guess any of the twists that were revealed in the book?
Jennie: Ha, not really. With an author like Novik, who has such an imagination…I think I’m almost too intimidated to let myself start to speculate. I was reasonably sure Orion was alive in the Scholomance at the beginning, and that was it.
You said in the review that “I don’t feel that the gaps between what I expected and what the book held were inconsistencies at all. They were hinted at in the earlier books and made perfect sense when they happened.” Do you want to elaborate on that?
Janine: I feel that Novik didn’t pull much out of her ass. Take for example El having sex with Liesel. In a bathroom scene in The Last Graduate, El watches Liesel primp to catch enclaver Magnus’s attention and thinks,
She would have looked nice enough for a date outside; in here, by comparison with our usual state, she might as well have stepped off the cover of vogue to dazzle ordinary mortals
Later, when Liesel is doing Orion’s homework after she and El had to shelter in his room from the cleansing fire, there’s this:
If he had actually taken a first glance at her cleavage, she’d have been a plonker not to make sure he got a second.
But he hadn’t, and when I realized he hadn’t, I started to feel more than a bit panicky, because he hadn’t any excuse not to be taking a first glance. I’m only mildly motivated in that direction myself and I absolutely had taken both a first and a second glance at the cleavage and the bouncy golden curls and shiny pink lips. I think anyone who wasn’t really impervious would have.
Very clever on Novik’s part because readers can interpret these statements as El only pointing out Liesel’s ambition and Orion’s obliviousness when in reality, they are also laying groundwork for the El/Liesel developments.
Jennie: Ooh, I didn’t remember that, but rereading it I do remember those lines! And yes, I took it as mostly meant to point out Orion’s obliviousness and maybe that he was so into El that he didn’t look at other girls.
Janine: There was a lot else like that. Deepthi loving El and having her best interests at heart, as well as acting to protect her—well, we’d been told in advance the Sharmas were strict mana and kind to everyone else, that they wanted to take in Gwen and El and Gwen and El had every expectation that they would be welcomed and loved, so it fit. Enclaves being powered by maw-mouths—we knew enclavers had flexible values and prioritized their comfort over protecting others, so it wasn’t out of place. Gwen and Arjun summoning the sutras—even though we had no clue about that, we knew they were valiant, caring people, strict mana and Scholomance students together, and that Gwen cherished her spell books. It was all in character. None of it came out of nowhere, but all of it was still surprising.
Was there any twist you found hard to buy?
Jennie: Hmm, not a twist, exactly, but the quick turnaround from “there’s nothing to do but kill Orion” at the end to “oh, wait, let’s do this instead and everything will be fine” felt pretty deus ex machina. What did you think?
Janine: That transition did feel fast. Not deus ex machina, because it didn’t come from outside El and we knew the spells she combined, but her realization was mentioned so briefly it was almost skipped over.
On another topic, some readers are unhappy that El has sex with Liesel and see it as cheating. Did you see it a betrayal of Orion or not, and why?
Jennie: Not at all, the first time. El thought Orion was dead and she needed comfort. It surprised me a bit, maybe because there’s virtually no sex in the first two books until the scene near the end with El and Orion. And so I had an ever so slight “is Novik trying to sex this book up?” reaction, which in retrospect I feel a bit ashamed of because 1) I’ve read enough of her books to know she doesn’t throw in gratuitous sex scenes and 2) it really wasn’t explicit at all.
Both of these facts made me see the relationship differently. And that in turn made me feel okay with the second encounter between them, the one that could sort of technically be seen as “cheating”, since El knew Orion was alive at that point. I was still surprised when it happened, but in retrospect I felt like it was giving us information, in a roundabout way, about El, and her relationship with Orion (and possibly the way fidelity is viewed in the wizard world, though that may be a stretch). El never acted like it was cheating or she was ashamed on that count, so I accepted that it wasn’t an issue.
Janine: Oh, I didn’t view it that way at all. What kept me from viewing it as cheating was that both times it was about her love for Orion. The first time she thought he was worse than dead, and out of her reach forever, so it wouldn’t have been cheating in my eyes regardless. But she thinks:
But whatever her reasons, at the moment she was here, and where she was touching me it was only her hand on my skin and the faint sandalwood smell of the free soap, and there wasn’t any room left over in my head to go circling back to Orion, Orion, Orion, and maybe I was looking for a way I could shove him away, out of the gates of my mind, for at least a few minutes, because when Liesel leaned in and kissed me, I kissed her back.
This is so clearly to me about her heartbreak over Orion, her having to fight back the knowledge that he is gone, that she can’t bring him back. Her pain over her loss of Orion is greater than her attraction to Liesel for reasons having to do with Liesel herself. She’s doing this for a moment of comfort, for breathing, and what’s more, as we later find out, Liesel is doing it to comfort her also. There’s not that much lust here, or even sexual need, it’s almost all about an emotional need stemming from love for Orion.
The second time, I was more surprised, and a little taken aback, until I realized it was also because of Orion. Because there’s this:
Liesel predictably tried to pry some information out of me afterwards; we were toweling off when she asked abruptly, “Now will you tell me what happened? Why did Orion go?”
And it turned out that was the real reason I’d done it. It was easier to tell her here, and I did have to tell her. Because I didn’t know what I could do for Orion, and that meant I was going to have to ask for help to do it: the lesson I’d had thumped into me properly last year in the Scholomance.
So I sat down on the lid of the loo and told her right there, with the roaring of the plane going all around us, trying not to listen to the words I was dragging out of myself.
El she says it plainly- she had bathroom sex on the airplane with Liesel because she needed to tell her about Orion, to figure out what she could do for him, which is something she can’t do without Liesel’s help. Even dragging the words out is traumatizing because she loves him and he is undergoing this horror. So even that sex was primarily about him (not to say that she didn’t enjoy it or like it or take comfort from it)— “the real reason I’d done it.” In both cases the information I thought Novik was trying to impart was how much heartbreak El was feeling over Orion, how much she wanted to save him, how much she feared that she couldn’t. And how easily she could fall over the edge.
I have to say that if I didn’t feel confident that Liesel didn’t love El or even have a crush on her in any sort of naïve way, I might have been angry toward El for her treatment of Liesel. But Liesel didn’t, and she initiated both times, clearly aware of what was going on with El (she was way too smart not to know) so I couldn’t see El as using Liesel.
More generally, how did you feel about Liesel by the end of the book?
Jennie: God, I loved Liesel so much. In a book where many different ethnicities and cultures are depicted, I think the author has to be careful about the stereotyping (and IIRC Novik got in trouble with a couple of things in the first book that were viewed as offensive by some). But Liesel is a glorious Germanic stereotype and I found it, and her, hilarious. She is so practical and…not emotionless, exactly, but certainly not driven by emotion. She’s logical and impatient with those who aren’t. She just felt like a perfect foil for El throughout the book and I think a lot of her decisions both moved the story forward and…kind of saved the world, in a manner of speaking.
Janine: Agreed. For me Liesel was the unsung hero of this book. She did so much to help on so many levels. All those you mention, but for me also what I just talked about, her willingness to offer her body and her emotional sturdiness to El to get El through this—to keep her from blowing up the world and to get her to the place where at the end, she can save Orion—made me see her as heroic (although the stereotyping did bug me a bit). She saved Orion as much as El did, in a way—another reason I can’t view it as a betrayal. And it showed that she could be generous and kind, in her way. Before this book I hadn’t known she could.
Jennie: How did you feel about the revelations about the choice that El’s great-great-grandmother made to protect her? I was left with residual resentment on El’s behalf, as well as a slight sense that the whole thing was a plot necessity that needed to be cleaned up. But that may be unfair of me.
Janine: Oh, I loved Deepthi. She was without a doubt my favorite of all the characters we met in person for the first time in this book. I’ve read the scene where she has her first conversation with El more times than any other part of the book; it was the most comforting and loveliest of them all for me.
It didn’t read to me like a plot necessity, or at least, no more than any other scene that forwarded the plot. For me it read as a satisfying payoff. Like I said, it fit in with so much of what we knew about Arjun’s family and I already expected a twist to the prophecy itself. And I don’t see what else Deepthi could or should have done. If she’d left things alone Ophelia would have found little El and made her into a maw-mouth or done something equally awful to her, and then turned her on her enemy enclaves. Should Deepthi have stood aside and let that happen?
It devastated Deepthi on a personal level. She, her grandson and her granddaughter-in-law had already lost El’s father (and she had to not intervene with that!) and El was the only piece of him that was left. She wanted to love El and embrace her with all her heart, and instead she had to hurt her. A five-year-old child! She was still crying because of it thirteen years later. I saw it as an incredibly self-sacrificing thing, and I wanted very much for El to forgive her. I’m glad that El (as I read it) is on the road to doing that.
Can you elaborate on why you felt as you did?
Jennie: I think I had a harder time than El did letting go of all the years of resentment. (After three books, I love and identify with El very strongly.) I can acknowledge that Deepthi had no other choice, but at the same time the feeling lingers. It’s not fair – and I did think she was a lovely character! – but it’s still there.
Thoughts on Orion’s mother? I felt like by the end Novik was maybe giving her a tad more grace than El, which reminded me that El has a very black and white world view (to be fair, El feels forced to have that world view to a degree, since she always fears tipping off into the dark side).
Janine: I don’t feel El has a black and white worldview; she bends over backwards to say that most enclavers are acting to protect their kids and not out of malice and to acknowledge that she herself wanted to be an enclaver and was almost willing to farm out her terrifying skills to become one. She sees and acknowledges shades of gray in almost everyone’s motives. She’s an idealist with strong feelings about what people ought to do, but that’s not the same as seeing the world in black and white.
I didn’t feel that Novik gave Ophelia more grace than El did. Humanizing Ophelia only made her more awful to me because it made her more believable. And Li is the one who insists on portraying her as understandable. His hands aren’t clean, so it’s in his interest to view her and her crimes that way. He points out that there was some logic and emotion behind her decisions, but so what? Isn’t that behind everyone’s decisions?
El’s line about how even Ophelia spending the rest of her life scrubbing out the toilets of the families of the children that she murdered wouldn’t make El forgive her was the final word about Ophelia in the book and I thought that was a good place for Novik to finish saying what there was to say.
Jennie: I think that’s fair. I also noted and found interesting that it was Li who gives a slightly different perspective on Ophelia, and honestly, why wouldn’t he, given his own deeds?
Janine: We encountered a number of characters here that we’d only heard about before—Gwen, Ophelia, Balthasar, Liu’s parents, Aadhya’s family, Li, Deepthi, El’s other relatives in Maharashtra and possibly others. Which of them did you like encountering on page the most? And if that character wasn’t also your favorite, who was?
Jennie: I didn’t really feel like I was “meeting” Gwen for the first time because El talked about her so much. I really loved Aadhya’s family – they felt very real and normal, living outside of an enclave and just kind of being a typical large, close-knit immigrant New Jersey family, the kind that pushes food on visitors and just in general shows exquisite hospitality. I felt like El needed to meet people like that.
Janine: For me it was Deepthi and after that Li. Not in the sense of liking him as a person. But he was complex and interesting, a mix of ruthlessness and gentleness, a degraded moral code and the self-awareness to know he doesn’t have much leg to stand on. And yes, Aadhya’s family after that. I loved them too. They were so warm and welcoming to El.
Along these same lines, of the established side characters, who did you like reading about best? You can name more than one.
Jennie: Absolutely Liesel. I think you touched on it in the review – she wasn’t the most likable character in the last book but I just adored her here. I would read a whole book with her as the main character, gladly! And again, I thought she was a great foil for El.
Janine: Liesel for me too; like you, I loved her reframing. After that, Aadhya. I love how Aadhya’s pragmatism a big part of her core yet she’ll set it aside for El.
There also were some notable absences or near-absences—very little of Chloe, none of “that […] useless trombone Magnus” (A Deadly Education), and the Scholomance as a character wasn’t in this book either. Others too. Who did you miss most or hope to see more of and didn’t?
Jennie: I did miss Chloe a little bit. She had developed into an interesting and somewhat sympathetic character in the first two books. Magnus, not so much, though he could be mildly entertaining.
I didn’t miss the Scholomance as a character, mostly, because I felt like it was played out and did its job in the first two books. It was really different to go from an enclosed setting to “El runs all over the world.” But I thought it was a good change.
I probably missed Liu the most; even though she’s an integral part of the plot here, she isn’t really on the page as a character as much as I’d have liked, or perhaps specifically I missed the El/Aadhya/Liu dynamic. They’re a great trio and I had expected to see them in action more than we did.
Janine: Agreed about Magnus and the Scholomance. I wanted a bit more Chloe but I feel she’s also played her part. I would have loved more Liu but I can’t say I consider her an absent or near-absent character. A character I wanted back (I suspect many won’t remember her because she wasn’t in book two) is Clarita, the valedictorian of the class ahead of El’s. I also wanted to see Nkoyo.
Despite the fact that everyone survived and things were a lot better by the end of the book than in the beginning, for me The Golden Enclaves was dark. Dark dark dark. Did you feel that way too, Jennie; did it hit you hard? If so, what hit you the hardest?
Jennie: It was very dark, but it didn’t really hang over me too much except for the scene with Liu being tortured, essentially. That upset me a lot. Also, Ophelia creeped me out when she and El first met.
I’m not sure why the general darkness didn’t affect me as much, but sometimes that just has to do with the mood I’m in when I’m reading a book.
Janine: I wish I felt that way. Ophelia didn’t creep me out as much as I feel she should have, but from the moment they found Orion until El finally saved him, a black sky hung over my reading experience. It receded slightly in the scenes with Deepthi, but was still there and returned full force for the following scenes at the Scholomance. El was hurting so much and I was hurting for El. Even at the end, the sky I saw was still somewhat gray.
There were a lot of grace notes in this book, though; moments when people supported El, thanked her or came through for her, and moments when El found the courage she needed. What was your favorite?
Jennie: I’m not sure I have a favorite – there were quite a few. Do you?
Janine: Number one for me was Deepthi’s love. I loved the love from Liu’s grandmother. One that I really enjoyed and didn’t expect at all was when Khamis showed up for El. He’s such an obnoxious jerk and yet he came through, and he was also the one whose push got El to come up with her solution at the end.
Jennie: I did find the gratitude that was shown towards El somewhat reminiscent of moments on Buffy the Vampire Slayer when people acknowledged that Buffy was always saving the world and that doing so placed a burden on her. It made me think about parallels between El and Buffy (both characters I love!).
Janine: I mentioned loose ends earlier; I spotted a lot of them. What about you? Was there anything you wanted to have wrapped up more thoroughly?
Jennie: Seriously, you are somuch better than I am at that. I would love to hear yours to see if I even noticed them!
Janine: In brief:
- If Orion is carrying the Scholomance and Patience’s other enclaves on his shoulders, as El says, then what happens to them when Orion dies or even gets injured? Or does “stay” mean he’s immortal now?
- How is El going to support herself in the future?
- I can’t picture Ophelia sitting on her hands and extracting no more malia from anyone. Near the end that Deepthi warns El about her again—El will be putting herself in danger if she goes to New York. Can El even visit Aadhya in New Jersey? And what’s to stop Ophelia from making another Orion?
- I don’t buy that it will take the enclave councils a decade to figure out that El is toppling the enclaves. Li already knows from personal experience that hurting a maw-mouth means damaging an enclave, and every enclaver present for the book’s climax saw how that killing the maw-mouth in Orion almost took down the Scholomance. What happens when they figure it out (in a few weeks IMO) and start hunting El?
- This fifth one is more of a plot hole / unanswered question – how do Liesel, Liu and El know that their new multi-caster Golden Stone spell works if they don’t have the mana to test it?
Jennie: I think #3 was the one that stood out for me at the end. Ophelia remains a clear and present danger, as do other maleficers. But I took that as: “life goes on, and our work continues.” It wasn’t an ending that promised safety for El or those she loves, definitely.
How did you feel about how things were left between El and Orion? Were you disappointed, or did it seem to fit?
Janine: Well, first let me ask you how you interpreted the way things were left with El and Orion, because I’ve seen at least one disgruntled reviewer say that they weren’t even together anymore by the end of the book.
Jennie: The romance reader in me always wants a HEA (or HFN) ending between characters that I think have a lot of chemistry. But I also did feel that the ending was fitting. To go back to El/Liesel, I think maybe it was telegraphed that El and Orion weren’t meant to live a conventional (well, conventional for magical people) lives in an Enclave or a tent near Gwen’s or whatever. They both had important work to do, so the ending absolutely made sense. It was still just a tiny bit bittersweet.
Janine: I did feel that they were together, and when Gwen said, as she dropped El off at the Scholomance in the last chapter, “Maybe you’ll have two homes, now,” I took it to mean that El would probably live with Orion at the Scholomance part of the year and out in the world during the other part. It seems feasible; now Scholomance students will have a summer break they might also have a short break between semesters and El could move in for one semester and be out for the next. And Orion indicates that he’ll be in the outer world helping her hunt maw-mouths during the summer. The new Scholomance rooms being made to accommodate two people now can also be taken as a nod in that direction.
Jennie: I absolutely felt that they were together at the end, just that “together” meant something different in this context. I also assumed that El would spend time with Orion at the Scholomance and of course Orion did actually say he’d be with El in the summer. So I don’t get why anyone would think that their relationship was over.
Janine: Probably because they saw El as cheating on him and then concealing it.
Jennie: I felt that the lack of addressing of “cheating” meant that it was a non-issue for El and hopefully a non-issue for Orion. It’s not like El ever said, “Orion can never know about this!” Now that would have made me uncomfortable.
Janine: Agreed. Also, Orion let what Ophelia did to him go so easily, I can’t imagine that this would upset him. For me the return to the gym in the last scene signaled a coming back full circle—this was the place where El and Orion first made love, and also where she found him again to bring home. And there was the kiss at the very end. So I saw them as together. Not physically together at all times but that’s still an HFN for me. I see them as a couple in the sense that implies exclusivity at least for now.
They’re too young to get married so I didn’t wanted them to, but I did want their future to be articulated more. For El to say “Next semester I would be out hunting maw-mouths, but the semester after that I was planning to spend with Orion working on improving my maw-mouth killing spell—maybe someday we could get it so other people could cast it. Orion was already talking about joining me in the summer.” Not a lifetime commitment but a plan for how to juggle a relationship with Orion with her life on the outside for now. They had suffered so much; I wanted a resting place for them and for me as a reader.
Jennie: I can see that. But I also see it as…they are young, energetic and resilient; I might want a respite for them both but maybe they didn’t feel the need? I interpreted it as an “on to the next adventure!” ending.
Janine: Good point. I like that interpretation a lot, actually. But if so, the book would have been better if that was clarified, and the loose ends on my list don’t help. The respite we did get didn’t feel like enough of one. Because the book was so dark for me I wanted to close the book on a fun or playful moment (like Orion and El running through the obstacle course alone together as they did in The Last Graduate) for more happy, romantic feels. All in all, it felt like something was missing and that kept the book on the edge of too dark. I felt a little relief but not enough.
Did it seem to fit? I guess I have to say not entirely because the happy ending wasn’t equal to all the darkness. But in terms of their characters and in terms of their relationship, it absolutely fit.
What about you? Were you satisfied? Did you think it fit?
Jennie: I see your points. I also wanted an epilogue. Now that I’ve had time to sit with the ending, though, I wonder if it’d be hard to have an epilogue that didn’t feel too epilogue-y, too tacked on to make the reader feel like everything was okay in the end. Because the world they inhabit absolutely had the chance to be better, more equitable, and more peaceful, due to the actions of El and her friends. But there were still challenges, and the darkness was still there, and all the bad stuff had still happened.
Janine: I wanted not so much an epilogue within the book (just a happier last scene there), but an epilogue novella or novel, maybe even from Liesel’s POV, to wrap up all the loose plot ends. I don’t feel that would necessarily be too epilogue-y; it could have its own plot.
Jennie: That would be great. I would love to see more of this world, honestly.
I didn’t feel most of the darkness of the book as deeply as you did, I don’t think. I acknowledge it, and really felt it in the business with Liu, but it didn’t affect me strongly. So I didn’t feel the need as much for lightness at the end or more hope or even joy. I think the ending fit. As with Orion and El being in a less ambiguous relationship, I think what I might want and what made sense in the book are two different things.
Janine: I wonder if the reason I don’t see their relationship as ambiguous to the degree you do is because of the way I read El’s reasons for sleeping with Liesel. To me it was about El’s heart breaking over Orion and her need to save Orion, to get through the heartbreak so she could find the strength to do it. So it doesn’t make me feel that El and Orion’s relationship is an open one, if that’s what you are getting at.
Jennie: Not necessarily an open relationship, but I felt that the lack of shame, guilt or worry on El’s part about being found out indicated that in her world, the interludes with Liesel were not a big deal and not considered cheating. I felt like I had to take Novik’s lead and view it as a non-issue, because everything in the text indicated that it was a non-issue.
Janine: I agree it wasn’t an issue to El but to me that was because the first time he was effectively dead and the second was because she needed to discuss how to save him with Liesel, and needed the emotional support/comfort (given and taken through sex with Liesel) that would make it possible for her to find the strength to do what was necessary for saving him. How could it possibly be a betrayal of Orion to do that? And if it isn’t one, what does El have to feel she did wrong? So I saw it as a non-issue as well, but to me that wasn’t an indicator (one way or another) of how it would be viewed in the Scholomance world, just an indicator of how El saw it and felt about it–and I think that her feeling about it was the correct one.
Please join us in the comments and let us know what you thought of the book and its twists. We would love to hear from you!
I really need to reread it to know what I think more precisely, but I really enjoyed it. While I see why Novik wrote the HFN ending I do wish Orion had died – I actually thought he had and was surprised when he reappeared – and I’m not in the least clear where the book left him. Need to reread.
(And I’m a little bit suspicious that El could sense the distant evil underpinning the enclaves, but not the less-distant evil inside her boyfriend.)
(Also a little bit perplexed that Book 2 made it totally clear that he could not fight all the mals, because he was not invincible, but then he just did.)
I do think it shows how brilliant the writing was in Book 2, in that the revelation of his identity rang absolutely true. And so satisfying to know why the mals never attacked him in school. I loved Liesel, and – while it was really dark – loved the explanation of the maw-mouths, and their effect on the enclaves. Apart from my mystification about Orion, I loved the whole story.
OTOH, it’s not a series where you can ignore the sub-text. I’d always thought of them as climate-change books, but that didn’t seem to hold true in book 3. But they are very much about systems of privilege – very explicitly in this book you can only live a relatively safe life by sacrificing the innocent, and accepting the ongoing torment of others. And I don’t know what I expected her to conclude about that, but on the story-level, it’s solved by El being dangerous enough to threaten the status quo, and powerful enough to offer a realistic alternative, and I don’t know, I wanted something with more of a real-world application.
(Not asking for much.)
I liked all the writing about parents – all the different ways they can mess you up, whether intentionally or accidentally. And lots to think about: Deepthi kills Arjun, or at least allows him to toddle off to eternal torment – so why are we sympathetic to her, but not Ophelia? And I think that ties into the broader exploration about what it is to be good or evil: that was my prediction, that El would be forced into doing evil in the service of absolute good – not that I want that as a real-world application, but I couldn’t see where else the series could go. (Maybe I get a quarter of a point, because Deepthi does it instead? )
@MMcA: Why do you wish Orion had died?
Good point about El sensing the evil in the enclaves but not in him. On further thought, I believe it was because El didn’t want to sense it in Orion. Gwen told her, “Enclaves are built on malia. You can feel it if you let yourself,”) and El was ready to believe badly of the enclaves, so she picked up on it. But when Gwen told her about Orion, she refused to believe it. Ergo she didn’t sense it.
Re book 2 showing that Orion couldn’t fight all the mals–when did it show that, can you remind me? I just assumed that El believed it to be true but was just wrong about that, as she was wrong about many things.
Re Liesel, are your thoughts re the reasons for El/Liesel being a nonissue closer to mine or closer to Jennie’s (they are detailed in the final two paragraphs of the post if you don’t have time to read the whole thing)?
I had questions about Orion, but they were all stuff that focused on the aftereffects of how El saved him.
Also (as I said in the post), I don’t buy that the enclave councilors won’t figure out very quickly that El is the “malificer,” given that they witnessed how her near killing of Orion almost toppled the school.
Agreed re the subtext! Lots and lots of subtext. I always saw it as a parallel for class / financial inequality.
Great point re the parents theme. And re. Deepthi, I don’t see where she had a choice. Arjun wouldn’t let her do anything else. In every other path she could see, he went back to the graduation hall to sacrifice himself to the maw-mouth after Gwen died because he knew Deepthi must have seen it and let Gwen die in his stead. In other words there was no path in which Deepthi could save him at Gwen and El’s expense because he would not have allowed such a path. He tied her hands.
@MMcA: It’s interesting that you mention climate change, because there were parts that read like a Holocaust allegory to me. The banality of evil, and the idea that some were expendable and others just turned a blind eye to what was being done.
Honestly, it could probably be applied to any number of situations in human history. Sadly, we don’t change much.
I confess that I didn’t enjoy this book as wholeheartedly as I did the first two in the series, and I think it was because the El/Orion interplay and romance that I liked so much in other books was mostly absent. We had “dead” Orion, then zombie Orion, then a flash of “real” Orion, then back to zombie/depressed Orion, then ended up with cheerful, sanguine Orion who seemed (weirdly IMO) very little affected by the horrific events and revelations of the story. I have always loved El (I am usually a sucker for a snarky, underdog hero or heroine), but I also loved Orion’s character especially in the second book (his sweetness with El, his loneliness despite his popularity and everyone else’s hero worship, and his uneasy awareness that his aptitudes and his impulses were not “normal.”) I loved how perfectly Orion and El fit together (ying and yang…hero and potential evil villainess; popular kid and class pariah; rich kid and poor kid; one cheerful almost to the point of obliviousness and the other cynical and suspicious of everyone’s motives, etc.) and how despite their apparent differences, they were both outliers at the school and grew to really care about each other.
So…not much El and Orion romance in this one was a disappointment to me.
One thing that I absolutely loved was the way that Novik reversed the roles of El and Orion in this book with El assuming the role of everyone’s savior and Orion becoming the one that caused people to instinctively move away.
I was interested in your takes on the El and Liesel relationship. I was not a big fan of their sex scenes, especially the second one which occurred after El and Orion had gotten back together. That one really seemed off to me. I have always really liked Liesel as a character (even in the second book…I know that some people find her annoying but I love her brains, relentless ambition, and bossiness), and I liked her even more in this book. But she is much too cynical and transactional for some as mistrustful as El to even be in a casual relationship with (IMO). She was a good foil for El as a traveling companion though.
I agree that ending seemed a little rushed and incomplete. I wanted more of an El/Orion emotional payoff here after all the trauma of the preceding chapters.
@Elle: Re El/Orion–I would have loved more scenes of them together. But the ones of them together were actually very romantic to me because of their heartbreak and how much they wished for better things for each other. I saw El in particular as really in love with him; she was hit so hard by his “death” and everything else that followed.
Great point about the role reversal. You guys are picking up on themes I never even noticed!
Re the El / Liesel sex scenes–I agree the first felt more seamless than the second. I saw them both as grief coping therapy to an extent, though, volunteered on Liesel’s part and taken gratefully on El’s, so after I got over my initial reaction they didn’t lessen my impression of how much El loved Orion.
I also agree that El and Liesel are all wrong for each other. I was thinking the other day that Liesel is a person who has a strong emotional need for control (her backstory shows why to an extent, too). Every situation she’s in, she wants to be in control of. And I believe that in almost every relationship there is always one person who loves the other at least slightly more, who would be willing to be more sacrificing for them than vice versa. Liesel, much as I love her, would never, I think, be that person in a relationship. In all of her relationships, she would have to be the one with a bit more power, the one who loves a little less. Whereas Orion loves El with all his heart. He would give her everything. And after a lifetime of being rejected, El deserves that.
Agree (so much!) that I needed much more processing of trauma for Orion. And also Liu! And even El. Orion’s recovery felt particularly rushed but was in character in some ways–he’s always been a person who brushes every bad thing off and sees the good in almost everyone. But nevertheless, I thought the experience he had in this book deserved a lot more recovery. Another reason why I’d love an epilogue-sequel novella.
@Elle: One thing that just occurred to me is whether any of us would feel differently about the sex if Liesel were male? I kind of think I might, at least the second encounter. I feel bad about that! I don’t want to discount it or make it “less than” because Liesel is female. I just think a man might have felt weirdly like a rival to Orion.
The exception might be if El had had a close male friend, so their relationship was already established as close but not romantic. But most of El’s friends in the Scholomance, once she got some, were female.
@Jennie: Liesel wasn’t her friend yet the first time, and I think that helps the reader too (they’re not emotionally close in a any way before that, so she’s not competition from that perspective either), and is another reason why that scene is less jarring. And also she tells Aadhya that she did it to hold El together—a practical consideration completely in character for her and not really love or lust. It’s a bit more murky the second time, though I feel the motives are similar there — plus Liesel wanting to know about Orion and El wanting to tell her, and finding it easier to share in the intimacy/closeness/privacy of the bathroom.
Someone I’m discussing the book with on Goodreads pointed out that Liesel, El and Liu coming up with a way for multiple people to cast the sutras’ spell within a few weeks of her saving Orion, when no one else had in thousands of years leading up to it, seems pretty unlikely and I agree.
I also wanted to say (and I said over there) that it would have made much more sense for Novik to have them figure out a way for multiple casters to cast her new maw-mouth killing spell instead. That would save the world much better, because once that spell was known and freely distributed it would go viral and then there would be no point in hunting El down because taking her out of the picture wouldn’t put an end to the threat of enclave destruction. And all the enclaves would immediately become motivated to change their foundation stones ASAP. Whereas this way El will have a much harder row to hoe. But maybe that’s what Novik wanted and why she wrote it the way she did.
@Janine: It’s hard for me to hear about plot holes in books I really like; I kind of want to put my hands over my ears and go “lalala I can’t hear you.” I think it’s because the more I like/love a book, the more real the world created feels to me, and thus I find it hard to confront things that challenge that reality. Does that make any sense?
@Janine: really hard to say why I wish Orion had died, because I usually have a really strong need for an HEA. I think it’s partly because, the more I reread Book 2, the more wrong he felt, so the less I was invested in the romance. I don’t really believe in their relationship going forward – it feels like they’re unhealthily co-dependent. And just – sounds odd to say it in the context of a book about a magical school – realism?
(And now I’m thinking about Book 2, I’m so glad Novik didn’t write the sex scene just to get El pregnant – I did worry about that possibility.)
El was really sure in Book 2 that Orion couldn’t fight all the mals – I don’t have access to either of my copies, but I’m remembering her thinking something like but as soon as he needed to rest or eat they would kill him – though that might have been from the first book when they repaired the machinery. And, yes, she might have been wrong, but she also fought a lot of mals alongside him, and they’d done a lot of practice runs together, and you’d think she’d have noticed if he was invincible.
As for Liesel: I don’t think it crossed my mind that El was being unfaithful, which now seems odd. I once went to a talk given by someone who had worked at Bletchley Park (where they broke German codes) during WW2. She talked about being engaged to 3 young pilots at once – because whenever one asked you, you accepted, because lives were short. So maybe El and Orion’s relationship felt like that – normal rules do not apply.
I do think you’re right about El being in danger – I think that’s part of what makes the series so interesting to think about, because the story does continue on outside the books, and everything is hanging in the balance. And, to circle back, maybe that’s why ‘Orion is fine now!’ is annoying, because while it’s clearly the right way to end the story of a teenage relationship in a magical school, if you’re enjoying thinking about the wider ramifications and what might happen next, you can’t have El being so all-powerful that her magic conquers every problem. (I really like the idea of the maw-mouth spell being shared, because if she’d written it that way it would have reinforced the idea from Book 2, that problems that can’t be solved by individuals can be solved if everyone works co-operatively. )
I don’t remember the details of Deepthi’s conversation with El, but couldn’t she have stopped Arjun going to school in the first place? Or stopped Gwen going?
Also, as an afterthought, I was thinking last night about how much I loved that Gwen’s working with Orion was to give him hope.
@MMcA: It’s interesting that your take on El/Orion in the second book is almost diametrically opposite of Elle’s a few comments above this one. Orion did get weirder in book two but there was something sweet about him even then, to me, and I did love the scene in the gym where they raced the obstacle course alone together and especially his conversation where he said something like “There are normal people, and that’s not us” or something like that—acknowledging his frustration with his own abnormalities and telling her “El, you’re the first right thing I’ve ever wanted.” That was just lovely.
I will say, however, that in this book he was pretty creepy and disturbing at times, and I had to keep reminding myself that he was an innocent person this was done to, that he was tortured by that and that he’d rather have stayed in the school than come near El. That he was as freaked out by himself as anyone. But nevertheless he freaked me out anyway. I was so disturbed by the revelation about his true nature that I had to force myself past it.
I don’t feel that Orion and El are codependent, or at least, I feel that there’s enough beneficial there to make up for some degree of codependency. In many ways they actually empower each other. They each get what it’s like to be a “tertiary-order entity”, to have been different from everyone else. They each get how with power comes responsibility. They’re each self-sacrificing. They have both been outcasts in their own ways.
I think that’s empowering; when there’s on one else who has experienced what you have that’s a very lonely thing. And it’s normalizing; they make each other feel normal because between them, there’s no such thing as too abnormal to love. Their acceptance of each other seems very freeing to me. I don’t think either would have transformed without the other and they’ve both changed for the better since they met.
Yes, El was sure Orion couldn’t fight all the mals. She was also sure that when Orion told her he’d never wanted anything else but to kill mals before he met her that he was wrong and he misunderstood his own true nature, that he was just brainwashed by his family to think that was true. This whole book was full of El’s (and by extension the reader’s) misconceptions being debunked. Her reasoning for why the Sutras came to her, why Orion stayed behind in the Scholomance and pushed her away, and how Deepthi really felt about her, among other things, were all misconceptions.
There wasn’t any point at which we saw Orion tire from fighting mals; in fact El says in the second book (in the graduation hall scene) how much in his element he was fighting them, how great he was at it, and how could you not want so much to do that if you were that good at it?
And if you think about Novik layering in clues all along the way, like El’s seemingly stray comment about Liesel’s cleavage in The Last Graduate (quoted above), there’s also one like that about Orion—when they get back from fighting the mals in the graduation hall in A Deadly Education, and get caught by the cleansing fires. El says:
He’s completely unafraid of mals, and I think that’s a clue that they can’t hurt him.
That’s an interesting analogy to World War II pilots. I did feel somewhat like that too, that El’s situation was so dire and dark that I wasn’t going to hold her needing comfort from Liesel against her.
I actually have come up with a theory as to how El cured Orion that makes me understand that better than I did earlier, but I still have unanswered questions there, less about the how and more about the after effects. I’m curious how it’s affected his mortality especially.
But by “Orion is fine now!” do you mean cured, or do you mean not traumatized? The latter bothered me more than the former. I think I as a reader felt a traumatized to an extent, and needed to see Orion and Liu process their trauma so that I could believe more strongly that they would be okay.
Re Deepthi. That possibly doesn’t get addressed specifically, but Deepthi said (and El understood / believed) that she couldn’t change his death even though she tried to come up with many ways to do that.
I think it’s a plot hole though. Let’s say he was going to die outside the school, a mal was going to get him no matter what she did, and his life would have been even shorter. Well, that seems like it makes sense, but it actually doesn’t unless that mal was a maw-mouth because we’ve been told multiple times that being eaten by a maw-mouth is worse than death, and that was his ultimate fate. So even if she couldn’t have saved him, she could probably have at least steered him in the direction of a kinder death. But I think that’s a plot hole and we’re not intended to come up with theories like these. We’re intended to believe that she did the absolute best thing that she could—she would have done anything to save him but he wouldn’t allow it, so she had to let him go and make his ultimate choice.
Re Gwen. Yes, that was nice. I really wanted to see Gwen’s reaction to the news that El could and had killed maw-mouths. I felt a little cheated that we didn’t get that, but it probably didn’t fit in well.
I’ve only read through it once, so I’ll have to go back and reread. But I do have a few thoughts to throw out.
1. The role of belief seems fundamental to this story-line. El defines herself through her understanding of the belief in balance. So if some characters, like Liesl, come off as ‘tropey’, there’s a good reason for it; they’re fulfilling an expectation. Also it’s interesting that there’s not a lot of religion among wizards, perhaps because they understand the dangers of belief, (i.e. be careful what you wish for).
2. The original golden enclaves were founded 5000 years ago and would be contemporaneous with the Indus valley civilization, (although if Sanskrit is the original language for the spells that’s a bit of a problem in historical terms). My point here though is that although we find human sacrifice abhorrent, such wasn’t always the case, and there are instances in which people were sacrificed at the foundation of a building. So the genesis of the ‘other’ enclave spells likely goes way back. I’m also led to wonder about the original purpose of that Latin ‘crush-a-pit-full-of-victims’ spell El uses in book one.
3. El and Liesl were a bit of a surprise, initially I’d have picked Chloe as the more likely Sapphic liaison, (and I did expect one, though I can’t say just why). But on reflection it makes sense because they’re both powerful, just in different realms. What I can’t figure out is why their trysts occur in liminal spaces–I’m sure there’s a reason for it. As for them ‘cheating’, I don’t buy it, they don’t belong to anyone but themselves.
A story from Liesl’s POV would be interesting, though I suspect it would be difficult; I imagine she has a lot of pain and rage.
4. Novik ‘kills’ Orion in much the same way that Rowling ‘killed’ Harry Potter, (meaning they cheated). So yes, in a way, El fulfills the first sentence of book one. And here I see Novik twitting the whole genre, which amuses me.
5. I wouldn’t look for any of the characters to settle down very soon because a) they’re magical beings, why constrain them with mundane expectations? And b) they’re teenagers. (Yes, Liesl has a long-term goal and it got her through the hell of school, but maybe she’ll find it unnecessary or even a hinderance later on).
Further stories in this world would be fun, but I’m content with it ending as it does.
@Jennie: Yes, Jennie, I also wondered if people (including me) would have felt differently about the El/Liesel sex scenes if Liesel had been a male (for instance…if it was El/Alfie). Since I wasn’t a big fan of the scenes as they were written, I’m not sure that it would have made that much difference to me. Perhaps because Liesel had always used sex as a tool to gain an advantage for herself (with Magnus, Alfie, and briefly and unsuccessfully with Orion), she is not a very romantic or sympathetic partner IMO, even though I thought she was a great character. The El/Liesel sex seemed so clinical and unsexy; I found this jarring particularly in contrast to the scenes between Orion and El which were (to me), along with the scenes between Aadhya, Lui, and El, the emotional center of the books. It seemed odd to me that someone as generally distrustful and awkward with physical contact as El was in the first two books would be joining the Mile High Club with an acknowledged opportunist like Liesel a few weeks after graduation. But I can concede your (and Janine’s) explanations for these scenes even though I don’t think that they added anything to the story.
@Jennie: I agree with you and Elle that if Liesel had been female, we might have been more likely to look at her as Orion’s rival. But I don’t think a close male friend would have felt differently too. At least not for me, if anything, the feeling would be intensified. If my husband had a close female friend he started having sex with, versus someone who was a relative stranger, it might actually be more threatening to me, because that makes it not just a physical affair but also an emotional one. If my husband had a one-off, one night stand with a woman I’d never met (not a great parallel here), I would actually rather not know about it (going with the precept that it won’t be repeated), because it won’t impact my life much. But if he started sleeping with a close female friend I’d want to know right away so I could start freaking out immediately. But then, I am of the When Harry Met Sally school of thought on opposite gender friendships between heterosexual people. They usually have a sexual component even if it’s never spoken of.
@Jennie: It does LOL. I don’t always like hearing about them myself because it can take away from my unabashed love for a book. I still kind of wish my husband hadn’t given me a list of ridiculous plot holes when it came to the war strategy in Return of the Thief after he and I had both finished reading it, because I loved that book to pieces and his pointing out so many logical flaws took something away from the intensity of that love. It’s not the same as what you’re talking about (having to do with how the reality felt so real that you don’t want it challenged), because in my case it’s more that I call into question my overall love for a book. And sometimes then I also can’t reread a book without noticing flaws that other people pointed out to me after I finished, and that becomes an adulterated experience.
I do agree about the plot holes too, though in this case I think it’s a testament to how good the books are, because it’s from the rereading of them, and the trying to work out what Novik is saying about inequality, or good and evil, or whatever that questions arise.
And probably when I reread, I’ll change my opinions entirely.
So – trying to be brief @Janine – I read book 2 at least four times, and probably more. I think my take on El and Orion changed – the first time through, I was just on tenterhooks about their relationship and whether it would work out after Gwen’s warning – and thrilled that it did. I think (as you can probably tell) because I read stupid fast, I miss a lot, and I assimilate details by rereading. So by the fourth reading, I knew the relationship worked out, but was increasingly disturbed by Orion acting like an addict in withdrawal when he couldn’t find any mals to kill. And maybe that’s where the co-dependency thought came from – that he relies on El and I don’t know what she gets back.
However, you are right when you argue that the relationship has been good for both of them – but at the moment (and rereading will change all my hot takes) I can’t see how they get to a healthy adult relationship.
Also, I think you’re right that I was taking El’s beliefs about Orion’s vulnerability as facts. I think I just don’t like him being invulnerable because it feels like lazy writing – and Novik is not a lazy writer. But again, explicitly in book 2 El thinks that she and Orion are ‘once in a generation’ talents – on the edge of the normal bell curve of talent, maybe, but definitely normal, and – you are so right that the reader has to allow that El will be wrong about things, but we have only her judgements to go on – and suddenly in Book 3 they are both bumped up from students who are properly endangered by mals who disguise themselves as chairs, to graduates who can both kill maw-mouths when no-one else ever could. I think I feel cheated, and that’s probably what I meant by ‘Orion is fine now!’ that it all feels too easy, too pat, and problems that were insuperable in the first two books just faded away.
As for Deepthi, I was all emotion when I was reading that scene – so my thoughts about it were all post-book, and I’d have to reread to see if they make sense. I hadn’t thought of it as a plot hole – more that I think in some sense the series is a meditation on what it is to be good or evil – and I read the actions or inactions of all the parents in book 3 as one more way of addressing that question. So, Deepthi and Ophelia seem to me to be doing very similar things – choosing a particular path that will entail their family member suffering in order to achieve a future they judge the best possible. And I think Novik is letting us think about that.
Just to say again, I loved the series, and I think it’s brilliant, and beautifully plotted, and this fretting round the edges is a tribute to how very engrossing I found the world.
Just to add, I think you could argue that Liu’s and El’s parents also chose similar paths to each other – in that while Deepthi and Ophelia made conscious choices that affected the children, they both inadvertently involved their children. I shall now go away and see if I can make a case that Alfie and Liesel’s dads are similar. There’s a ‘Compare and contrast’ essay somewhere here…
@Janine: You said: “Someone I’m discussing the book with on Goodreads pointed out that Liesel, El and Liu coming up with a way for multiple people to cast the sutras’ spell within a few weeks of her saving Orion, when no one else had in thousands of years leading up to it, seems pretty unlikely and I agree.”
Oh yes…I definitely agree with this sentiment. That really contributed to my feeling that the ending was rushed. I guess you could argue that no one had had access to the sutras’ spells for thousands of years prior to El finding them in the library, but it seemed like the narrative quickly shifted from from El’s unique power and ability to translate the spells (which won her an extraordinary award from the school) being necessary to build the Golden Enclaves to suddenly *multiple* previously unmentioned cousins of El being deputized to perform the same work.
That said, I reread the last few chapters of the book over the weekend and I find that I like it more than I did the first time through. I had *really* been looking forward to this installment in the trilogy. I loved the first two books and even reread them during the week before The Golden Enclaves’ release, so perhaps the fact that the story-line deviated from my expectations was more of an issue on my first reading. I do think Novik is a great storyteller and would be happy to read more about these characters and this universe.
@MMcA: You said: But again, explicitly in book 2 El thinks that she and Orion are ‘once in a generation’ talents – on the edge of the normal bell curve of talent, maybe, but definitely normal, and – you are so right that the reader has to allow that El will be wrong about things, but we have only her judgements to go on – and suddenly in Book 3 they are both bumped up from students who are properly endangered by mals who disguise themselves as chairs, to graduates who can both kill maw-mouths when no-one else ever could.
Interesting point. I think that El is underestimating how far out on the edge of the bell curve of talent that she and Orion are located. She herself has managed to stay alive at the Scholomance for years despite being a “strict mana” complete loner and social outcast. Her ability to defeat mals (initially) is limited by her finite supply of mana and the difficulty that she has obtaining spells that would kill the mals without destroying the rest of the school. The fact that she is able to kill a maw-mouth is something that makes her unique and also something that she is not aware of until she is forced to try to do it. During The Last Graduate, her repertoire of mal-killing spells and her control over them is demonstrated to increase as she is forced to defend the first-year students and then her classmates as they practice for and then go through graduation.
Orion, on the other hand, is initially presented as a prodigy who has always been exceptionally talented with combat magic. He is not completely invincible (since El does actually rescue him a few times from mals, although this occurs mostly when he is very tired or low on mana), but in the first scene in the graduation hall when they are trying to repair the cleansing machinery it is clear that he is something more than merely talented when the mals fall back and try to go around him to get to the other students. His ability to hold the mals back during the final scene of The Last Graduation is also extraordinary. His power to kill maw-mouths turns out to be due to the fact that he is a maw-mouth (maw-mouth hybrid?) himself–something that seems to be unprecedented. One of the creepy manifestations of this in The Golden Enclaves is that he no longer seems to need spells or combat magic to fight but merely seems to absorb the magic and bodies of his targets like a true maw-mouth.
An interesting question is whether or not he will still be able to defeat a maw-mouth if he goes hunting them with El now that he has been separated from the maw-mouth portion of himself.
@Erasmus: You make some good points – there were a number of places in the story (though of course I’d be hard pressed to remember them now) where the idea that belief is integral to magic allowed things to make more sense to me than they otherwise might have.
Really interesting idea about the origins of the human sacrifice in building enclaves!
@Janine: To go to both your and Elle’s above points (I think?), I think there are a number of reasons that Liesel was the right one, which boil down to, Liesel was not a threat to El’s and Orion’s relationship in any way, shape or form. Whether the scenes were necessary or added much to the plot, I’m kind of on the fence at this point. I mentioned in the review that “I both have judgment and judgment about other people having judgment.”
I wouldn’t actually say I have judgment about El’s actions (or Liesel’s, for that matter; she is who she is). I am not sure including the scenes helped the book more than it hurt it, at least in terms of the pearl-clutching I gather it’s generated in some corners. I weirdly want to say, “it’s just sex; they’re young and healthy, this is normal, etc.” to everyone going on about it, while at the same time myself…going on about it. So…I don’t know.
@Janine: I think for me it’s so much more about the experience of the book rather than flaws versus lack thereof. How it makes me feel. So a very flawed book can make me feel things, and a technically great book can bore me. But specifically “reality challenging” flaws feel a little different, LoL.
@Erasmus: Great comments. Here are my thoughts on your numbered points.
1. Hmm, I don’t really buy that as the reason Liesel is tropey. Liesel may have magical abilities but I don’t have the sense that people in this world develop and grow and express the characteristics they do on the basis of what others believe of them to a degree that is greater than in the real world. If they do, that hasn’t been conveyed. And surely her parents, who were more involved in her creation than anyone else, would not have wanted her to be a living portrayal of a German stereotype, since they were German themselves? That doesn’t really make sense to me.
Re magic and religion–yes and no. There was a scene in The Last Graduate where Yaakov pulled out a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) and prayed. This scene BTW really irritated me because Yaakov was a kibbutznik from Israel and let me tell you, as one who was born in a kibbutz, nobody devout enough to use a tallit would choose to live on a kibbutz. Kibbutzim were founded by atheist socialists and are still quite secular. A kibbutz is a community, not just a place you live. Novik should have done her research.
(While I’m on this topic, who brings a prayer shawl to the Scholomance in their precious weight allowance? It’s not something you can use every day whenever you feel like. Generally speaking it’s worn for morning services unless it’s Yom Kippur.)
In any case this is an indication that there is religion in the Scholomance world.
(As long as I’m on an adjacent topic; the mention that Yaakov and Ibrahim couldn’t live in each other’s countries without being hated on was kind of ridiculous also. They couldn’t live in each other’s countries period; they couldn’t even enter them. Israel and the United Arab Emirates don’t have diplomatic relations.)
3. Re liminal spaces–that’s a really interesting point. I wonder if it’s meant to convey, if through subtext and perhaps unconsciously, that El and Liesel’s relationship is outside the boundaries of their regular, every day, ongoing lives. That it’s something that exists because of an emergency situation, and when order is restored, it will end? I confess, I did read it like that–as an emergency measure, as MMcA compared it to in her analogy to World War II pilots and the young women of that time period. I read it very much as Liesel offering El her body and her emotional sturdiness to lean on in this dire situation.
Re a story from Liesel’s POV–but Novik does pain and anger so well! I don’t see why she couldn’t do justice to it. Have you read Spinning Silver?
4. The series started out as a flipped Harry Potter: A female hero rather than a male one. Rather than being welcomed by other kids at school, our loner prodigy protagonist is rejected. There’s a prophecy, but rather than predicting she’ll save the world, it suggests she will destroy the world. There is a boarding school, but instead of being full of kindly teachers, it’s populated by monsters who try to kill the kids.
5. It’s not that I think they should settle down; I agree they are too young. But a college student type boyfriend / girlfriend relationship is appropriate enough, and that’s where I see them at the end. My complaint isn’t so much that they aren’t settled down, but rather that the ending was rushed and I wanted happy feels. I was telling Jennie that sitting in the gym and thinking “It was kind of nice, actually,” (paraphrasing), brought to my mind all the trauma that happened in the gym, and I didn’t want to relive that just then.
@Elle: Interesting you felt the Liesel and El sex was clinical. It didn’t read that way to me. I agree it wasn’t sexy and I don’t think it was meant to be, but it read as emotional for me. As I said, I saw it as almost like some kind of grief coping therapy, and as such I thought it was really necessary to the story. It got across El’s grief, her turbulent emotions and her difficulty holding it together, and I don’t know if I would have felt that to the same extent if it hadn’t been for those scenes.
@Jennie: I think Liesl seems a bit of a mystery to us, the readers, because she’s a bit of a mystery to El, but I think in the end El understands that she needs her. I too was a bit ambivalent about the sex scenes, but I think they’re justified for the following reasons.
First, there’s the old saying, ‘Everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power.’ If this were kinky erotica Liesl would be an excellent dom. It’s not that kind of story, but the D/S aspect of their liaisons is there nonetheless and their relationship seems founded on something more fundamental than love or lust. Physically, El gives Liesl her trust and Liesl returns it with care that helps El recenter herself, (so in kink terms it’s a power exchange). Both scenes take place after El has had a very rough time, and they take place in transitional spaces, the second time literally up in the air. So in a symbolic sense Liesl is helping El keep herself together through a change, and maybe this has some magical effect that El is unaware of, rather like Gwen’s philosophy about good deeds being rewarded in unexpected ways.
Second, why should wizardly society have the same taboos, constraints, and commitments as mundanes? I doubt El was raised to be prudish. In fact I suspect Gwen would approve.
Third, we don’t know what Liesl’s affinity is, maybe it has something to do with sexual healing, (though I kind of doubt this), and we’re being shown rather than told.
And I think this last is why I find this series so intriguing. Novik has managed El’s ‘reliability’ quite well in that she’s so convincingly forthright about what she believes she knows, (even when what she ‘knows’ isn’t so), that I’m pulled along with her despite having the impression of all sorts of things going on off screen, and maybe those unseen actions will have an unexpected impact on the narrative.
I’m not sure how important it is in this context that they be able to transition to a healthy adult relationship. They are not adults–eighteen is really still a kid. This was an HFN ending (as I read it), not a HEA. I don’t think they need to figure out a lifelong partnership or commitment right now. I just wanted to see them happy and at a resting place, figuratively speaking–at a place where they can stop to catch their breath, spend some time together relaxing and maybe even having fun. Being kids, in other words. In many ways, what I like about this relationship is that it *doesn’t* force El to grow up too fast. I like that she can still be playful with him, that they can still be kids together.
El has had to grow up a lot in this book, whether or not she wanted to. She’s had to take on more and more responsibility with each book. So maybe what I wanted and needed as a reader was to see these kids being kids to at least some extent; to see them have fun together bringing out the best of each other for now.
Not forever; I really don’t know if they belong together in a forever kind of way. Although I could envision Orion growing up, as I did in that one scene in The Last Graduate where he tells her he’s never been normal, or at the commune in Wales where he says she should have left him there–those are clearly adult moments for him, realizations that he might not have had a couple of years earlier, because he wasn’t mature enough–I don’t see him eager to grow up. And that’s a big part of the appeal of this relationship for me. I’m not eager for El to grow up.
She will anyhow; she’ll be hunted at some point, and face a lot of adversity before she’s done bringing death and destruction to all the enclaves of the world. So I want her to have some lighter moments in her life for now, and Orion isn’t a heavy person to be around, despite all he’s been through. There’s something innocent about him, as well as resilient, and I think these things are good for El at the moment. Whether they’ll always be–whether he’ll be able to grow up at the same rate as she does, whether this childhood relationship will always be right for her when she’s an adult–is an open question. But I don’t mind that, in fact I kind of like it.
I’ll reply to the other observations later.
@MMcA: The “once in a generation talent” statement rang false to me when El made it in The Last Graduate—it seemed like a lot more rare than that given everything else she was saying. She’d never heard of anyone who could suck mana out of mals like Orion did, or of anyone with her ability to lay waste to cities either. I felt at the time that it wasn’t supported by anything else in the text, not congruent. I read the book again almost a year later (in preparation for reading this one) and had the same reaction the second time. It was jarring and bothered me that Novik would put it in there when it so patently inconsistent.
Now I get that it was a deliberate misdirection but I actually think she went too far in that direction for me, because I was so unable to swallow it when I read that sentence in book two that I bounced off it hard. This aspect doesn’t seem too easy or too pat to me because if anything it made their lives harder than they would be if they were only once in a generation talents.
However, I do agree that the resolution to the story felt too easy. Not the part with Liu, for example, but the very ending did. Like what I said about suddenly resolving the Golden enclave building problem.
It also bothered me that was that Orion retained all his earlier abilities and I don’t really understand how. The “I always could” belief doesn’t really work for me as an explanation because while belief does matter a lot in this world, it still feels easy. Even if it permits him to keep taking the mana out, how is it that he’s still so good at killing the mals, too? I think if his abilities had been altered in some way, whether good or bad, it would have made it easier for me to buy that he really was fixed.
Re Deepthi, I don’t know. I felt very differently about her than I did about Ophelia. Ophelia was harming, taking lives, whereas Deepthi was saving lives, and at great personal cost. And she said that she only chose for other people when she couldn’t live with what would happen if she didn’t. In this case she saved El. Further, I didn’t see any questioning of what she said—the way El accepted it so completely means I think that the reader is also intended to accept it. I do realize it contradicts what I said earlier about El’s statements being unreliable narration but in this case it was actually a clearing up of unreliable narration—the unreliable part being El’s belief that Deepthi was wrong to tell the family to cast her out, and had betrayed her and Gwen, when in reality Deepthi had been protecting them out of love. That’s what it read like to me.
In general, I read this trilogy as presented by this last book as a series of misstatements El made out of mistaken belief, a series of misdirections by the author, that are then cleared up and interpreted correctly in the second half of book three. Since Deepthi’s state that she couldn’t prevent Arjun’s death in any path came late in the book, was the last word on that topic, and was presented as true and not questioned by anyone, I don’t think we are supposed to question it either.
That said I do think you’ve made a good point about the parent theme, except I see Ophelia and Deepthi as perhaps opposite mirrors, each reflecting what the other could have been, perhaps, if they hadn’t had such different values with regard to mana/malia and also to parental roles. Ophelia used Orion and tortured him for her own purposes, and was even surprised that she sort of tangentially also loved him, although not enough to put aside her greater goals. Deepthi sacrificed her own happiness to protect El at all costs.
I would enjoy hearing what other people here think on this topic of Deepthi, Ophelia, and the parental choices theme in general, so I hope others chime in.
@Elle: I agree (SO MUCH) that the ending was rushed. That was my biggest issue with the book.
I too reread the first two books in preparation for this one and for me, too, this book was a shock to the system in terms of not being what I expected. And like you, when I reread the ending, I liked it better. I also reread my favorite parts, and then the whole book, to decide what my verdict would be. I definitely liked it better the second time–knowing what to expect made a big difference.
@Elle: I agree with your take here as well too. We are definitely on the same wavelength re. the “once in a generation talents” statement.
@Jennie: Well, that was also a statement that El made over and over–that belief is part of the magic system in this world. It was explained in the first book. You saw it at at work inside the Scholomance too, with corridors getting longer when people were afraid the walk would take a long time. The time that El cast that “la main de la mort” spell and the classroom almost caved as a result, she insisted on people believing differently before the whole corridor outside began to contort and almost came apart, too, and that stopped it. I still don’t buy that this was the reason that Liesel was a Germanic stereotype though. You two are letting the author off too easily on that one, IMO, LOL.
@Jennie: And — are reality-challenging statements different for you because of they retroactively affect how the experience of reading the book feels? Am I interpreting that correctly? If so I’m not that far off from you and maybe we are just expressing it differently. But maybe I’m misunderstanding.
@Erasmus and @Jennie: I definitely feel that the sex scenes with Liesel added more than they hurt, but at the same time, I’m resisting your statements that they indicate something about the Scholomance world, and I wonder if the reason why is that this interpretation takes something away from the emotional impact of these scenes for me. I really liked how they highlighted El’s emotional distress and another or even an additional reason dilutes that for me! LOL. It’s not because I want a forever commitment between El and Orion, but because I prefer a more emotional and satisfying reading experience. Kind of like you with reality challenging, Jennie (if I’m interpreting what you said correctly).
@Janine: As to parental choices in this world what examples do we have? Aad’s parents, after losing their elder daughter, ditch their plans to buy into an enclave and assimilate into the mundane Jersy ‘burbs in order to give Aad a chance at living fully. Liu’s parents are fervently dedicated to the cause of accumulating power in order to construct an enclave, so much so that they convince Liu to go against her own affinity (and probably instincts) and become a malificer by drawing from her mice. Not much is said about Chloe’s parents, other than their rather low ranking in New York’s hierarchy. Liesl’s father refused to acknowledge her and her mother chooses to die on the day her daughter is inducted into the school, (I’m still not really clear on the nature of the curse that led to this or any benefit Liesl may have gained from this sacrifice other than being let into the Scholomance). And Chloe seems to have fled the scene and holed up like a sensible person. So among the ‘minor’ characters we see a fairly wide range of parental choices/circumstances.
Liesl’s mother seems a victim of circumstance who made the best choice she could for her child. We don’t know enough detail about Aadhya’s family to judge their choice; on the one hand, by not seeking a place in an enclave, they made Aadhya’s ultimate fate more uncertain, but on the other we don’t know how much longer it would have taken them to buy their way in, so maybe it’s a moot point. Liu’s parents’ loyalty to their clan is ultimately, (and chillingly), betrayed. So again, the outcomes span a range.
Gwen and Ophelia are polar extremes; Deepthi seems somewhere in between. Gwen is a saint, isolated from the wizardly community, content with what she has, and I think a bit chaotic with her ‘be in the moment, let the universe guide you’ attitude. Deepthi is guided by the universe as well, but with her foreknowledge of ‘if I say X, Y’, she bears the onus of trying to find the path of least harm with her magic. This is something I don’t think Gwen experiences much, if at all. Gwen may witness harm, she may suffer it, but I don’t see her facing the dilemma of choice.
Ophelia has made lots of choices, hard and painful, though maybe not so painful after you rip away your anima. She expects her sacrifices to yield one thing, the power to make everyone else’s choices for them. I suspect one of the things she gave up to make Orion was the ability to have any more children. And here we arrive at Balthazar; rather pathetic in his efforts to ‘normalize’ his peculiar son, he seems the one who really bears the brunt of his wife’s choices, although perhaps he had a voice in them as well, which is why I don’t have that much sympathy for him.
So, what of the children? El and Orion are beyond the pale; El’s mother may be a saint, but I suspect El is a demigoddess. The part of Orion that was driven to play the heroic savior may be attributable to Balthazar’s influence, but maybe that was his role as master-artificer, to make the weapon more compliant, more ‘user-friendly’, (or maybe that’s just how Ophelia saw it). Of the others I think Aadhya is the most likely to forge her own path, Liu is tragic and may never truly recover, and Liesl is committed to the cause, because, of course she is. As to Chloe, I have no idea, but I think it would be in keeping if she sought out Gwen at some time.
@Erasmus: QUOTE: So in a symbolic sense Liesl is helping El keep herself together through a change, and maybe this has some magical effect that El is unaware of, rather like Gwen’s philosophy about good deeds being rewarded in unexpected ways./ENDQUOTE
I think that’s brilliantly put.
@Janine: I think it’s most accurate to say that I fear it should change the way I feel about the book. I don’t think I’m the most observant reader, which dovetails with being more of a “feeling” reader than a “thinking” reader, at least the way I view those labels. Sometimes I feel a little defensive about this, I guess.
I wouldn’t say that I positively believe that the magicals are all freaky-deaky; it was just one possibility that floated through my mind. I basically think that for whatever reason, in El’s mind the encounters with Liesel aren’t anything to have strong feelings about, whether it’s questioning her sexuality or not wanting anyone to know or feeling guilty about Orion or whatever. It’s hard to know why she considers it a non-issue, so I just sort of am going with “she does, and so I do too.”
@Erasmus: I agree with Jennie, what you said about the El/Liesel sex scenes dynamic was brilliant. At first I was surprised by the D/s kink analogy but I see what you mean (I would argue though that all good sex scenes involve a power exchange, even if it’s not overt or acknowledged). Liesel gives El a safe place to be vulnerable and I think the liminal spaces are part of that too—it’s safe to be vulnerable in an in-between place, a place that is neither here nor yet there.
@Erasmus: This too gave me a lot to chew on. I think there is a theme of self-sacrifice with the mother figures in the series; Liesel’s mother, as I read it, gave up some of her remaining time to help get Liesel into the Scholomance, although it’s not clear if that means to keep her alive long enough to reach induction day, or to use that mana to buy her a Scholomance seat.
Gwen also sacrificed a lot for El, because it surely couldn’t have been easy to raise an angry young child on a commune in Wales when you were a single mother as young as eighteen. It’s clear that there are a lot shortcuts Gwen could have taken, such as calming El down with spells, that she did not take, at least partly for the sake of El and her future.
But Deepthi is actually the one I see as having sacrificed the most to put El and her safety first. Deepthi knew she would pay a steep price for that and it devastated her, but she still did it.
I’m not sure I agree re. Gwen and the path of least harm. She has certainly been faced with tough choices such as taking child El into the safety of an enclave, knowing they are built on malia, vs. keeping her in the yurt where a mal might get her. On the face of it the choice is obvious—if she’d taken El to an enclave they would have made horrible use of her, and Gwen had to have known that—but when your child is hurt and angry and accuses you of wanting her to die (I think there was something like that) and you know she might die, that’s a situation in which least harm wouldn’t be so obvious.
However, Gwen is an idealist, and she believes in no harm, in “first do no harm,” as I think El puts it, as she believes Gwen would approach even the maw-mouth / enclave trolley car problem that way. I think her way of seeing the world makes choosing easier for her than for many others. In some ways she is as much of an absolutist as Ophelia is, just on the side of right rather than on the side of wrong. El and Deepthi see the world in grayer shades because they are often faced with messier consequences for their choices.
Moving on to Liu and Aadhya, although Liu’s parents are not self-sacrificing, Liu herself has been in a protective role where her cousins are concerned. It was for their sake that she agreed to take the maleficer track at school, even though she really didn’t want to. And I got the impression that Aadhya’s parents also put her first in their decision to move to the suburbs. They’d lost their first daughter and placed Aadhya’s happiness above their other considerations because of that (that’s what I remember from The Last Graduate, anyhow).
In contrast to all this we have Ophelia. Whatever Ophelia may have sacrificed to create Orion, she didn’t sacrifice it for the sake of his happiness or well-being. At most we can say she was giving him power, but I think she was really giving herself power. And as she pointed out, in New York she didn’t need to do any of it—she was driven by ideology.
(It’s an interesting theory that she gave up the ability to bear children. I could see that being the case but I don’t think there was anything in the book to suggest it, and there was a lot to suggest that she wasn’t a very maternal person and her love for her kid wasn’t one of her top priorities. And incidentally, if she did give up her ability to have kids, that surely wouldn’t prevent her from taking someone else’s embryo and turning it into a maw-mouth.)
I’m not sure what to make of Balthasar. I think he does love Orion, or he wouldn’t have quit his job to try to help Orion develop an interest in something other than mals, or been so moved to learn that Orion actually developed a genuine friendship and romance with El. But I think he did know what he was signing up for so yes, it’s hard to feel sorry for him or to respect him. Nevertheless I’m glad Orion had him as well as Ophelia in his life as a child.
Re Orion’s heroic part. Well, Li attributed that to the law of balance. He said they were waiting for El, the balance, but it wasn’t just El, it was also Orion, “not the hero that Ophelia wanted, but the one she deserved” (paraphrased). So I think the kindness needn’t have come from Balthasar, although it’s possible he nurtured it. Some of it was just integral to Orion, in the same way that a sense of justice is to El. And if they are both a counterbalance to Ophelia’s terrible dark working, then maybe both are demigods? That would explain how Orion retained his powers after El killed the maw-mouth inside him better than anything in the book. Although he doesn’t read like a demigod, does he? He’s too much of a boy.
I like to think that Liu will recover.
So here’s something I don’t completely understand and I hope someone will help me understand better. In this book we learned that Orion was always obsessed with killing mals to the point of noticing or caring about little else—his other toys were unopened, his father couldn’t get him to care about anything they tried in shop. So—why was El the exception? Because she treated him like a normal person rather than a hero is the explanation El provides, but I can only buy that up to a point. Surely someone else in his childhood must not have worshipped the ground he walked on? It doesn’t completely add up.
Do you think it does? Or do you think it doesn’t? And if you think it doesn’t, what do you think might be an additional explanation?
I think it really helps that El is such an honorable person. We know that if there was something wrong in what she was doing—if it was a betrayal—she wouldn’t disregard that so completely. The fact that it’s a nonissue to her signals to the reader that it should be a nonissue. She’s an honorable enough person that she would feel differently if that wasn’t so.
I agree your interpretation of parental sacrifices in the story is spot on, even Liu’s parents can be seen in that light.
I also agree that Orion is too much like a boy and I suspect he’ll always stay that way for two reasons. First he’s always been pretty one-dimensional, (and here I think there’s a clue as to why he sees El differently from others. Remember back in book two when she heals Cora’s arm and he remarks that Cora briefly had a sharp, edgy appearance to him, and that El herself did too at times, and so did mals? Maybe he sensed her potential for power.). Second, ‘you’re already dead, but stay anyway.’ is not an invitation to live and grow and grow old. I suspect what ever decided to stay was the part of him that knew happiness, the part that belongs in the Scholomance saving other kids; he’s Peter Pan. I don’t see much of a future for him and El. She has a mission out in the world that’s going to demand growth, and however much he might tag along for fun it won’t lead to changes on his part. And when El realizes that, it’s going to hurt.
And now I have a question for all and sundry; if you were to pick some aspect of this world and write a fan-fic about it, what would it be? Personally I’m intrigued by Luisa, (who is pretty much a caution against all those wish-fulfillment, ‘character wakes up to discover they have magical powers’ story lines), how did she manage to survive as long as she did, other than tagging along behind Orion?
@Erasmus: Hmm, that’s interesting, I’ll have to revisit that sharp edges reference.
I don’t rule out the possibility of Orion growing up but I do wonder if the “stay” choice means he’ll stay the same age forever and never die, or if he will age, or if it’s up to him (since belief means so much in this world), or if he’ll stay the same age but then can decide he’s tired and wants to move on from life. I hope he’s not immortal because that seems miserable to me, and to allow him to choose but choose only once, with no way out his choice, doesn’t seem kind. But I think all those are possibilities.
I think if Orion did grow up he would still be a very playful adult, and be fine with living in the Scholomance for part of the year. But he certainly won’t be able to protect the children if he reaches senior citizen age. On the other hand I really do hate the thought that El just trapped him in a nicer kind of trap and he can only stay stuck there.
It does all beg the question I brought up earlier—if he can die, or even just get hurt physically, then what happens to the school and the enclaves that have piggybacked on top of him in the void? One would think they would collapse.
I’m not very interested in the question of whether he and El have a long-term future as a couple. Possibly and possibly not but it doesn’t really matter that much to me. Like I said earlier, what I like about this relationship is that it allows me to hope that El won’t be forced to grow up too fast in every part of her life.
@Janine: I think you hit the nail on the head – I trust El, so I feel comfortable going by her lead in considering the encounters with Liesel to be not important in the context of her relationship with Orion.
El really built up that trust over the three books, not just by growing as a person and showing who she was as a person, but by being clear about the things that she considered unethical/wrong, and was tempted to do anyway (mostly having to do with magic, of course). She has an extremely strong moral compass.
@Erasmus: I’m not a fan-fic writer but I’d read something more about Chloe. Maybe partly because we didn’t really get her in this book and I’m interested in the notion of the Enclave kids who do grow up a bit and realize that they are part of an unjust system.
@Janine: I don’t give much thought to El’s and Orion’s long-term future as a couple, but I guess I hope they are in each others’ lives in some capacity because I think they give each other something that the other doesn’t get elsewhere, emotionally.
@Jennie: Yes, I agree with this. I feel like El gives Orion credit for his genuine efforts to be fair, not merely for his mal-killing skills, and Orion gives El a place to be herself even when that self is crabby; he likes her for who she is, on her bad days as well as her good ones.
ETA: She can relax with him because of that. She doesn’t have to worry about being judged or viewed as rude or barely worth tolerating. Even with her other friends, she rarely lets herself be free to this same extent.
@Erasmus and Jennie: I don’t write fan fic either but I’d enjoy reading (and maybe even writing) Clarita’s story. I’ve always found her interesting because of her strategy on making valedictorian—being nondescript enough to fly under the radar and be a complete dark horse, then posting her notebooks outside her dorm so everyone else could see just how she’d beaten them. It’s such a great little character detail.
I’d love to read her POV on everything beginning with the scene where she speaks up in the Cafeteria about how unfair the odds are against their graduating class and that maybe Orion should go to the graduation hall himself and fix the machinery there for them, and ending with the last scene with her back in the senior dorms, after the yanker spell has pulled them out of the hall once the machinery has been fixed, and she sees El and Orion about to run into the cleansing fires and calls after El not to be stupid, and to come graduate with them. Or maybe even minutes later, when she gets across the graduation hall. I feel there’s a good story to tell there, as I particularly love the moment when she grasps El’s power.
I’d also read something in Liesel’s POV, absolutely.
I voraciously, wide-eyed with amazement, mesmerized by the grimy invented details of the fantastic fictional sorcery, totally sympathetic to El and her family issues and her situation in the Scholomance, ready to follow her anywhere, loved the first book. And then the second was just as astonishing, flying out into absolutely unexpected territory with the plan to get ALL the Scholomancers out on graduation day. Simply brilliant plotting and thoroughly excellent writing all the way.
And then the third book. YES! Absolutely unexpected territory again, while clearly the culmination of all the premises of the first two. Chekov is supposed to have said something like “If there’s a gun on the wall in Act One, it has to be fired by Act Three.” Novik fires all her guns and tears down a lot of her walls. This is a super way to finish off a trilogy, and (my only reservation) if El’s life on the outside wasn’t QUITE as can’t-put-it-down compelling as the madhouse of the Scholomance — it was near enough.
I found that I didn’t quite understand why Orion got a reprieve from “You’re already dead” being the best El could do for him and instead is lolling around peacefully in the gymnasium at the end. I figured I had probably simply rushed through my reading of the last few chapters so much that I somehow missed the trick. The book is at my side and I’m planning to read through a lot of it again in hopes of that part making more sense to me. If someone would like to try to explain it to me, I wouldn’t mind a bit.
The discussion here about Liesel having sex with El is interesting. It had been a while since I read the first two books and I didn’t remember how Liesel had been described as so gorgeous. Nevertheless, here in book three we have it emphasized again how Liesel’s use of sex is transactional. She has established a “couple” relationship with Alfie because it gets her a place in his enclave. Furthermore, now that the mawmouth is at the door and El is the only one who can help the enclave, she’s made it quite clear to Alfie that she hopes to lure El with sex into an even more powerful combination of forces, and Alfie is on board with the attempt. It’s not about romance. We never hear Liesel wooing El — there’s no “Oh, El, you’re so lovely, I’ve wanted you for so long” or anything like it — we only witness her offering her body and her caresses because she knows that she can get hooks into her if El succumbs.
All of which is a subtext to the offer which El understands, and eventually decides she can withstand… because she needs the sensation of physical closeness. “I know, I know, but… I wanted the kiss.”
I don’t think this is a “betrayal” of Orion because I don’t think she and Orion made any vows of exclusivity. Again, I might be wrong about that, because it’s been a while since I read The Last Graduate.
@Stven: It took me a while to get Orion’s reprieve but I got it after I read the book a second time. El combined three spells to save him, her own spell, “You’re already dead,” the Scholomance spell, “Protect all the wise-gifted children of the world,” and finally the Golden Stone sutras’ spell, “Stay and be shelter.” She made Orion be/do all of those things by killing the maw-mouth that was the foundation stone holding him in the void and giving him the Golden Stone foundation instead, as well as imbuing him with the mission to protect Scholomance students.
Li Shanfeng says that Orion’s unique power was created when Ophelia took her embryo and made it into a maw-mouth, a tiny foundation in the void, and then she dressed it in her child’s skin. This makes me think that she might have, in some magical way, turned the embryonic child inside out, so that the maw-mouth was inside him and on the outside he was the fetal-curled body that El always sees when she kills maw-mouths, that last piece to come out, which is the originally-sacrificed person, what Liu would have been had the Beijing enclave carried out their plan. In a typical maw-mouth the sacrificed body is the last part to come out, the thing at the center, but with Orion it’s the reverse. There is some indication that this is what Ophelia did in what El says when she considers Orion’s plea to die in light of what Li just told her about Ophelia’s methods.
Perhaps, because that fetal-curled body always comes out of maw-mouths last, essentially separated from the maw-mouth by the maw-mouth’s death, El thought that it could not only be separated from a maw-mouth at the moment of that maw-mouth’s death but also, if given another foundation to replace the maw-mouth, could even survive once separated from the maw-mouth, since there was nothing evil in it when the maw-mouth was first brought into being. Each of the fetal bodies was a strict mana person like Liu, sacrificed to the evil enclave-building spell, at each maw-mouth and enclave’s inception. They were purer in that way than everything around them, the opposite of the maw-mouths that powered their immortal lives.
And (speculating further) maybe Orion being turned inside out made that more doable. In his case the sacrificed human at the center was made to be on the outside, and could walk and talk in the world and interact with others and develop feelings and relationships and be a (partly) human being.
(An innocent and in his own way strict-mana human being. The outer him only saved people and never wanted to harm them. It was only after coming face to face with the inner him and giving up hope for the survival of anything good in him that maw-mouth behavior started leaking out of him. In recognizing what he was, his belief that he wasn’t that started fading away, and belief counts for a lot in this magic system. That’s why Gwen giving him hope was so essential.)
His being able to be on the outside, within the world enough to form a life (in the figurative sense—have a life of his own in the same way we all have lives of our own), may have made it easier to make it possible for him to survive when separated from the maw-mouth.
You also have to go with the idea that belief counts for a lot with this magic system in regard to El’s ability to cast the spell. Li tells her that her “You’re already dead” spell works only for her, because she knows it to be true. Partly because she has seen the rotting innards of a maw-mouth, but it’s just as much because she’s already killed maw-mouths the hard way (without that spell). Otherwise Li would be able to cast it, and he indicates that he can’t. In other words what she means is, “You’re already dead because I want you dead, and if I want you dead, you die.” Which she can make true without that spell also, it’s just easier with that spell.
This being the case, El’s belief that she can kill the maw-mouth within the body of Orion, a sacrificed strict-mana child, without killing Orion himself also counts for a lot here. Her belief that if she replaces his maw-mouth foundation in the void with a Golden Stone foundation the part of him that isn’t maw-mouth can continue to be in the world (much like an enclave–enclaves are attached to the void, but are at the same time abutting into the real world and sheltering the people inside them from the void) is a huge part of what makes that possibility actually possible.
The role of the second spell, “to protect all the wise-gifted children of the world,” is interesting because it appears to also be necessary to Orion’s survival. It’s less clear to me why this is, but I’m guessing it’s because the fact that she and Orion are standing in front of the Scholomance, where that spell was originally cast, allows El to draw on or tap into the power of that original spell in some way, and since this command/request also aligns very well with Orion’s natural inclinations (she says as much when she combines the three spells)–he always protected the other kids at the school with no more prejudice than the school did–she can fuse the power of that spell into her combined spell and braiding it with the other two amplifies the combined spell’s power.
It’s also possible (and maybe both are true) that the Scholomance spell acts to prompt Orion to be able to separate from the maw-mouth (which is already dead and never protected anyone) and connect to the the Golden Stone foundation, that it’s the connective tissue between the other two spells: the maw-mouth is already dead, but won’t Orion to stay and be shelter to protect all the wise-gifted children of the world? And Orion says, “El, I’ll stay.”
Part of Orion is, and always will be, in the void. It’s just not a maw-mouth part anymore, but a Golden Stone foundation. El attaches Orion to that foundation as she attaches enclaves to Golden Stone foundations, with her plea for him to “Stay, stay and be shelter,” and he accepts and stays as enclaves do.
But what I find both interesting and confusing to think about is the “be shelter” part of “Stay” — that part is there because just as an enclave, rising from a Golden Stone foundation, shelters the enclavers within it, Orion, also rising from a Golden Stone foundation, now shelters the school and the enclaves that were part of Patience, Fortitude, and whatever other maw-mouths they and he ate. Because their old foundations were inside him, one must presume that in some way their new foundations remain in him, or that he is their new foundation.
This is the part that confuses me most. Did the fetal-curled, sacrificed strict-mana people at each one’s center die along with the maw-mouth? It seems so. El says that she grabs the school and those enclaves when she performs the spell, so I’m guessing she grabs them away from those people as they die and attaches them to Orion who in turn is attached to the void with a golden foundation.
I do wonder why the school and the enclaves can’t be attached directly to the Golden Stone foundation without a connection through Orion, since it seems that they can’t. I’m guessing this is because their foundations were within his physical body. But then the maw-mouth was too, and she wished it dead and it died, while Orion survived. Couldn’t she have saved those other fetal sacrificed people at the center of those maw-mouths too?
Is it that they couldn’t be saved becasue they hadn’t been alive like Orion was alive, out in the world with friends etc., in a long time? Or is that back when Orion consumed those maw-mouths, they faded from their foundation role, became the same as any other person consumed by a maw-mouth, and their foundation role transferred to him? Or was the problem that they couldn’t be extracted from him and so letting them survive would have meant sacrificing Orion becasue having those sacrificed people living within him might have prevented his transformation from a part maw-mouth boy to a Golden Stone boy?
Perhaps it’s just that El couldn’t imagine, or believe, in a way to do that. Or maybe she only had enough mana to do it the way she did it. It’s really not clear. She says when she performs that spell that she grabs them before they can slide away along with the dying maw-mouth and in the epilogue she states the school and those enclaves are now on Orion’s shoulders, that he’s carrying them like the mythological Atlas.
So what happens to them if anything happens to him? That question is never brought up or answered.
(I have thoughts on Liesel also but will save them for later.)
Okay, so re Liesel. I don’t see Liesel’s transactional approach to relationships the same way you do. I think there’s more to it than meets the eye.
In my view Liesel is someone who needs to be in control of every situation she’s in and that makes sense given her background and what happened to her mother. For that reason, Liesel presents herself as purely transactional to most people, and doesn’t share much of herself with them, but it doesn’t mean that there is no ability to empathize or care in her.
The revenge plan is a safe thing to focus on because it puts her in charge, in control, with power over others, which is very important to her. However, with someone like El, who is very honorable, trustworthy and ethical, Liesel can feel safer than with most people, especially once she knows El well enough to understand that about her. And Liesel does feel empathy for El in this book, particularly since El is in a situation where she has no control and horrible things are happening in her life, which is something that Liesel has experienced firsthand herself, an experience that probably traumatized her.
To me this was underscored when Liesel said to Aadhya (in the airport, in regard to having slept with El):
(Since DA’s block quotes don’t allow us to display italics, I’m substituting bolding for italicization where Novik’s original text was italicized.)
The mention of “the grim tones of experience” makes it clear that when Liesel was going through the worst things that ever happened to her, sex made her feel a bit better, because of the physical feeling of well-being that it can confer in its aftermath. And to me this made it clear that Liesel was drawing a connecting line between her experience and what El was undergoing, in other words, empathizing.
As for her practical, transactional side (which is very much a part of her), there’s also this:
This is all coming up in the context of Aadhya criticizing Liesel for sleeping with El. Connecting the dots between what Liesel is saying to Aadhya, that El is too powerful, to what El said to Liesel in her apartment within the London enclave, that her power could result in a scorched earth (only partly metaphorically speaking) if she ever starts a war, I feel that the practical, transactional side of Liesel, as well as the side that wants to be in control of her circumstances, both tell her to make sure El is well so that her world doesn’t get half-destroyed.
To put it in El’s words (upon overhearing Liesel and Aadhya’s conversation), “what she wanted, the reason she was helping me, was to stop me from going maleficer, […].”
These are the sum of Liesel’s biggest motives for sleeping with El IMO, as much as they can be summed up. I’m sure the facts that El is attractive and that Liesel likes her as a person don’t hurt either.