JOINT REVIEW (Part I, Spoiler-FREE): The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik
Jennie and I reviewed the first two books in Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, A Deadly Education and The Last Graduate, together (the first with Sirius) and we both really, really liked them. After a breathless wait for The Golden Enclaves (the previous book had one hell of a cliffhanger) the book is here. Here, too, is our joint review of it.
The Golden Enclaves is extremely easy to spoil and extremely difficult to discuss without spoilers. Most of the twists and revelations (and there are a lot of them) start at around the 33% mark and then keep coming, one after another, almost until the very end of the book. For that reason we’ve decided to run our discussion in two parts. Part I, this one, is spoiler-free and touches on only a little of the plot. Part II, running tomorrow, is a spoiler-filled discussion from start to finish. We ask that you contribute to the comment threads in this same spirit—keep this one spoiler-free and discuss anything you want to in tomorrow’s thread.
The Golden Enclaves is a departure in that it takes place in the outside world. El has graduated, but Orion has not—he stayed behind to fight off the world’s most terrifying maw-mouth, Patience, and protect the world from its hunger, and shoved El out the doors after telling her how much he loved her.
El appears in a meadow in Wales, where her mum is waiting with a bouquet of flowers. But El shows up hollering for Orion, screaming for him. In desperation, she tries a summoning spell that fails, then finds a small puddle to scry Orion in. She even kills some of the lives within Fortitude, the giant maw-mouth Patience consumed, through the puddle, but when she reaches in for Orion, he shoves her away again and cuts off the flow of mana to her power sharer. She uses her remaining power moments later for a spell to tell if his heart is still beating. But she gets nothing after several tries and is faced with the devastating truth that Orion is gone.
When El asked Gwen why she warned her away from Orion, Gwen says that she sensed overwhelming hunger in him and it made her terrified for El. It angers and hurts El.
El spends the next few days in a fog. After years of longing for freedom, she can’t enjoy the outside world. Gwen even catches her absent-mindedly creating a spell to alter reality and make it so Orion isn’t dead. Gwen grabs it and tosses it into the fire before it backfires and kills El and others.
Jennie: This part made me wonder how disorienting reentry into the regular would be for Scholomance students, even without the additional trauma that El experienced.
Janine: Great point. After that, El turns to her beloved Golden Stone sutras for comfort. But when Gwen realizes what El’s reading, she collapses in anguish and El can do nothing for her.
Gwen manages to push out words—an apology to El for all she’s ever suffered. When she and Arjun (El’s father) were Scholomance students, they summoned the sutras, she explains. Enclaves are built on malia, on some deliberate horror enacted in the world. You can feel it inside the enclave if you let yourself, Gwen says. But the Golden Stone enclaves were different, and she and Arjun wanted to spread that better, kinder path, only the spells for building them were lost. So they summoned them—and agreed in advance to pay any and all necessary costs.
They thought it hadn’t worked, not that the sutras would be given to their child in return. Neither of them guessed that Arjun would pay by being taken into a maw-mouth, where existence is an unending, inescapable torment.
Gwen and Arjun also didn’t know Gwen was pregnant, that they were offering their child as a sacrifice. A horrific toll has been extracted from El, who’s known rejection and cruelty all her life. Arjun’s family tried to kill after her great-great-grandmother prophesied that she would bring death and destruction to all the enclaves. Everyone—from adults to peers, acquaintances to strangers—recoils from El when they meet her. And now her payment includes Orion’s unending suffering.
Jennie: This was probably the first devastating revelation in a book full of devastating revelations. I had not guessed that El’s parents would have any connection to the sutras.
Janine: Me neither.
Jennie: I would almost like to have a prequel dealing with Gwen and Arjun’s time in the Scholomance, but I really can’t bring myself to read prequels where I know a likable character – which I’m assuming Arjun would be – dies.
Janine: Yes. That would be a great story but also a tragic one.
El has difficulty processing Gwen’s revelation and asks for time to think. But when Gwen goes off to their commune’s shower to give her space, Liesel shows up.
Readers of The Last Graduate may recall that at the Scholomance Liesel was instrumental in helping El, Orion, and El’s other friends free the other kids; she used her brilliance to calculate how to optimize everything. But El disliked Liesel’s willingness to do just about anything to get admitted to an enclave. Liesel also tried to kill El once (to her credit, she changed her mind soon enough to save El from her trap).
Jennie: I really love Liesel to an unreasonable degree. It felt like the book really started when she showed up – she is a great foil to El.
Janine: Hmm, for me the book started with Gwen’s revelation and took off in a big way later, when El decided to on and set out to New York (more on that in a minute). But re Liesel—I didn’t love her in the last book but oh how Novik changed my mind about that! For me she was the unsung heroine of this book (we’ll talk about her in tomorrow’s post).
To get back to the story, the attacks on enclaves have continued; Salta enclave, like Bangkok, was recently destroyed. London has survived but just barely. Its wards have weakened and a big maw-mouth broke through. Liesel demands El come and kill the maw-mouth. El is annoyed but Sarah and Alfie (now Liesel’s boyfriend) also beg El to help. The maw-mouth has consumed many London enclavers and if El doesn’t kill it, Alfie’s father will fight it and likely be the next to get eaten. El goes with them and killing the maw-mouth turns out to be easier than she expects.
Jennie: The killing of this, her third (I think?) maw-mouth, felt a little anticlimactic to me, but later it made sense in context. (Though I also wonder if her technique would work on other nasties?)
Janine: I wanted it to be just a little bit harder than it was, too, but there probably wasn’t room to fit in a slower progression to her ultimate skill level at killing maw-mouths.
Afterward, Liesel invites El to dinner and reveals that her ambitions aren’t as mercenary as they seem. Liesel extends El an offer: she’ll convince the enclavers to fund El’s Golden Stone project if El agrees to guarantee their safety from maw-mouths. But El turns her down. She knows that if she’s forced to make nice with enclavers she’s liable to lose her temper and wipe them off the face of the earth.
Soon, the enclave’s leader tries to seize control of El by putting her under a compulsion. With Liesel’s help and that of a woman named Yancy, one of a gang of wizards who mooch off the enclave, El escapes. Yancy guides them out through an old section of the enclave that is halfway in the void and shouldn’t exist. It’s easy to die there, since to disbelieve in its unlikely presence—London enclavers destroyed it long ago—is to end it. But they make it out okay.
Jennie: This bit dragged a little for me, I think in part because I was working to understand the slightly different part of the wizard world that Novik describes here.
Janine: Yes, good point. It did. For me with the exceptions of the actual confrontation with the maw-mouth and the dinner conversation with Liesel, the entire section between El’s departure from the commune and her arrival at the airport (see further down) felt slow relative to the rest of the book. Events came fast and furious in the second half. I’ve seen readers say they wanted more downtime in the second half, but things were dire enough that I just wanted El to confront the obstacles. Nevertheless I loved the breathing room scenes we did get.
Jennie: Yeah, I kind of think the second half had to be as action-packed as it was.
Janine: To get back to the plot, the walk through the partly-demolished area of the enclave makes El realize that if this part of the enclave has lingered past its destruction, so might the Scholomance and Patience. If so, then unless El finds a way back into the school and kills Patience, Orion will suffer forever.
So El has to travel to New York and ask Orion’s powerful parents for the necessary mana. Liesel attaches herself to El—she has an ulterior motive and El needs support, so El lets her. They meet up with Aadhya in New Jersey and she joins them. But what they find in Orion’s home and later on is nothing they anticipated.
The Golden Enclaves is a journey, both literally (every chapter is named after a different location where it takes place) and figuratively—a personal odyssey to end Orion’s suffering, and a growth journey for El and her world. It was also a journey for me because so many things are reframed and the picture of El’s world is so much more complete by the end. I had to let go of some preconceptions, definitely.
Jennie: It really upended many of my beliefs and assumptions from the previous two books.
Janine: This book does that very thoroughly. I read it twice to help me make up my mind about it. The first time I was overwhelmed by how dark much of it was. The snarky humor that infused the earlier books is a lot less present here. Since El is in a lot of emotional pain and she’s the narrator that’s appropriate, but it’s still a significant tonal shift. And (without speaking to whether or not there’s a happy ending) just when I thought things couldn’t get darker, they did, more than once.
After reaching the end, I needed more of an epilogue to allow me to recover some. There were a lot of loose ends left dangling, too. But there were also wonderful grace notes in this book: people pulling together, reunions and fulfilled promises, gentle kindness and support.
Jennie: I would not have minded an epilogue, either. Partly because there were just really unsettling moments that happened very near the end, which kind of leads a bit of a hangover for me as a reader. It’s not that the ending was rushed, but having the really bad stuff so near the end leaves a strong impression even if the end is different (if that makes any sense).
Janine: I agree on the last. But I do think the wrap up was rushed, in terms of my needing things explained a bit better and wanting to see some loose threads tied up. I’m not one of the readers who likes everything in a tidy bow and I wouldn’t want that here, but I wanted a little more.
I’m in awe of what Novik has accomplished, though. Many of the seeds that were planted in A Deadly Education come to fruition so beautifully in this book. El’s conflict with the enclaves, her history of being rejected, her friendship with and love for Orion, Orion’s quirks, El’s tight group of friends, the school, the maw-mouths, Gwen’s backstory, and the prophecy all come together brilliantly.
Jennie: Agree. I could probably stand to reread (and I’m not a rereader) just to make sure I’ve caught everything.
Janine: I had a contradictory reaction of being blown away while feeling weighed down by so much darkness, but then I found myself going back and rereading the moments of hope and light, the times people supported or thanked or showed love to El or just plain showed up when she needed them. I read these over and over until pretty soon I had reread half the book.
Jennie: I think what struck me was how morally ambiguous so many of the characters were. A lot of them were either making the best choice they could out of bad choices, or (less forgivably, but understandably) turning a blind eye to the bad things others did to keep them safe.
Janine: Yes. Novik is very careful to hold the system accountable at least as much as a handful of individuals. El touches on the complexity of the situation; people want their kids safe, and then they want their homes to be more comfortable, and then luxurious… it’s a slippery slope of injustice, just like in the real world. And most enclavers may know that there’s some bad stuff happening to make their comfortable lives possible, but they don’t know how bad.
After rereading my favorite parts, I decided to reread the whole thing to figure what my final verdict would be. The second time I liked enjoyed the book substantially more. The first time my preconceived notions (based on the earlier books) got in the way of my enjoyment, but the second time I just let myself fall fully into the pleasure of reading it and appreciating it for what it is, and not judging it by how it fit or didn’t fit my expectations.
(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.)
The Golden Enclaves is quite good. Really, really good. There are so many payoffs, and I loved getting to meet characters we’d only heard about off page. Gwen, of course, but several others too. There are horrible things going on in El’s world, at first behind a curtain El can’t see through. She and we can nevertheless sense that the enclaves are powered by awful acts. The more that curtain was pulled open, the harder it was for me to bear, but at the same time the plot and the worldbuilding are so well constructed and everything made so much sense within the context of the world.
Jennie: The trilogy feels heavily allegorical taken as a whole. The world Novik creates is a microcosm of our own, with the division between the haves and the have nots, and (not to overstate it) the banality of evil.
Janine: On Goodreads many readers love this book but a few hold something against El, and we can get into that in tomorrow’s discussion. Without revealing spoilers, I can say that though El becomes a more complex person here (part of growing up), I still love her.
Jennie: I have mixed feelings about that and am eager to discuss it. I both have judgment and judgment about other people having judgment.
Janine: LOL. I can’t wait! I’m going to close here with my grade, which falls short of an A mainly because of my feeling that more of an epilogue would have been good both for my reading pleasure and to tie up loose threads. I’m giving The Golden Enclaves a B+/A-. What about you, Jennie?
Jennie: It’s another A- for me; I can’t give it a lesser grade than the first two books. I can’t even really rank them at this point because they are both distinct from each other and also, kind of a seamless whole.
In tomorrow’s discussion, we’ll ask each other questions and answer them, and we’ll talk about all the twists and turns and unexpected surprises there and in the comments, as well as about our favorite characters. We hope you join us!