JOINT REVIEW: The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik
Jennie: Janine, Sirius, and I reviewed the first book in the Scholomance series (originally slated as two books; now a trilogy). Sirius gave it a C- and said she wouldn’t be reading this sequel, but Janine and I, though we had some reservations, ended up liking A Deadly Education quite a bit – I gave it an A- and Janine a B+. I was really quite excited to pick this book up and even more excited to review it with Janine.
Janine: Thank you! My grade actually rose after that and I’ve read it multiple times (sometimes in its entirety, sometimes just parts of it). I also put it on my best of 2020 list.
Jennie: The Last Graduate begins with the same scene that A Deadly Education ended with. Our heroine, El, has survived the group attempt to fix the machine that cleanses the graduation hall, giving the year’s seniors a fighting chance at survival. She’s in the cafeteria for the induction of freshmen students, when one unexpectedly gives her a letter from her mother. El had not expected anything because her mother isn’t wealthy or connected, and bringing in letters for students at the Scholomance is a big deal since it reduces the weight allowance that freshmen have; they need every ounce to hope to survive the coming four years.
Anyway, the short letter ends with an ominous declaration: “Keep far away from Orion Lake.” Orion is El’s maybe-sort-of-almost boyfriend, who she spent the year of A Deadly Education getting to know (not without some setbacks; El’s default is sarcastic insults and Orion’s is wide-eyed cluelessness).
El doesn’t know what to make of her mother’s warning, but like any teenage girl being warned off of a teenage boy, she doesn’t like it.
Janine: I really liked the way El came to the decision that she would disregard her mother’s warning. Orion was the first person in the school to like and befriend her, and warning or no warning, she wasn’t going to turn her back on that. I came up with more than one theory for what was behind the warning, but when the reason was finally revealed, it was surprising, not anything I guessed at, and yet it felt inevitable, too. That was masterfully done.
Jennie: The next day, the first of the school term, there’s more not to like (El’s personality and the nature of the Scholomance often conspire to bring about less-than-ideal circumstances). El finds herself assigned to an isolated classroom with a pack of freshmen.
Janine: Another thing I really liked was El’s interactions with the students she starts thinking of as her freshmen. At first, she’s determined not to watch out for them—she reasons that if they don’t learn to do that for themselves, they won’t last a day—and then she ends up playing the white knight after all, but she’s grouchy over it. That was so loveable and so El. She personifies the reluctant hero.
Jennie: Agreed – she’s lovable and also fascinating because we know she has this capacity for darkness but she’s also a better person than many of her classmates (to be fair, the nature of their world and the Scholomance seems to toughen up the young wizards early on).
Later, El realizes that the mal attacks she must fend off in class are pretty much the *only* mal attacks in the school, which is unutterably bizarre and inexplicable. It is also frustrating to Orion, who is almost manic in his mal-fighting inclinations, and who draws mana – essentially, wizard energy – from killing mals.
Janine: El, Aahdya, and Liu conclude that the school is intent on pushing El into the malificer “track” to gain mana from the students she’ll kill (the school needs mana to run on). To get the mana to combat the mals the school sends El’s way, they invite New York enclaver Chloe Rasmussen to join their alliance.
Jennie: The plot of The Last Graduate felt a bit episodic to me, and not entirely cohesive, which makes a summary difficult (for me anyway). El is dealing with several problems, some of which are more life-threatening than others (most are at least a little life-threatening).
The New York Enclave continues to want El to join them, especially as it becomes clear to the entire school that El’s not just some random weirdo but a seriously powerful wizard. El has no intention of joining a powerful enclave, but that’s something she’s still coming to terms with after thinking for years that joining a powerful enclave was *all* she wanted.
Word comes from the outside (via the one survivor) that the Bangkok enclave has been wiped out.
Janine: I loved the minor but crucial thread about Sudarat, the surviving freshman. It was poignant. I got teary in one scene.
Jennie: The destruction of an entire enclave is an unusual occurrence – the whole point of enclaves is that they provide safety. Various factions inside the school begin to worry that a Wizard War may be going on in the outside world. This in turn leads to some of those factions thinking it would be better to take El out rather than let her join New York. So now El has humans that want to kill her along with the mals.
El herself is coming into her own understanding of what graduation means, what her plan is for surviving and helping her alliance survive, and how far she is willing to go to defeat the Scholomance once and for all.
Then there’s El’s relationship with Orion, which felt like it got short shrift early in the book, but took center stage later in the story. I missed him early on; I know The Last Graduate isn’t a romance but I really like Orion as a character (even if I occasionally share El’s exasperation with his quirks).
Janine: I missed Orion and El’s friends-to-sweethearts relationship in the first half too (it was magical in A Deadly Education), but there were some lovely shifts in their relationship later on in this book, and huge payoff for the romantic drought near its climax, both in the lull before the storm and in the very last scene, which…wow! I felt we were offered a deeper and closer look at Orion, too. I’ve always felt affection for him but by the end of this book he had developed into a fully-fledged (albeit quirky) romantic figure.
Jennie: The lack of focus on El/Orion early on did give some of El’s other relationships further room to develop. I particularly like the growth of Chloe, the New York enclaver who went from enemy to sort-of-frenemy to actual friend to El in the first book.
Janine: Eh. Not a Chloe fan here. She does her best but how privileged she is relative to El and El’s other friends still bugs me. If my theories about book three are correct, though, Chloe may play a crucial role there, so I can see why it was necessary.
Jennie: Also, El gets a familiar, a little mouse named Precious (the name is comically/ironically cutesy given that El is so…not the type to have a cutesily-named pet).
One thing that has confused me about the Scholomance is how often it seems to conspire in large and small ways to make the students’ lives even harder than they would otherwise be. Some of it is explained by the idea that a certain amount of sacrifice (in the form of students) is needed to protect the other students, specifically the Enclavers whose ancestors are responsible for creating the Scholomance. But sometimes it seems like the school is just sadistic for no real purpose – for instance, the food in the vending machines is generally very dodgy and borderline inedible. Another example is evidenced several times over the two books and described thusly:
Distances in the Scholomance are extremely flexible. They can be long, agonizingly long, or approaching the infinite, depending largely on how much you’d like them to be otherwise.
I suppose that could be another way the Scholomance puts certain kids at a disadvantage deliberately with the intention of generating fresh blood (literally). Or maybe it has something to do with the nature of the magic in this world, where it seems like intentions can have an effect on results, both good and bad. But often it comes off as capricious, and I wish I understood it better.
Janine: I read this very differently but I can see how it would be confusing.
Jennie: The Last Graduate can be seen as a classic bridge book between the opener and closer of a trilogy – it advances the plot and characters (and El’s character really does come into her own in a lot of ways) and sets up the finale (with another – even bigger! – cliffhanger than the first book delivered). As such, middle books can be the red-headed stepchildren of trilogies – no one’s favorite.
I actually did like this quite a bit. Still, there’s a lingering sense of…dissatisfaction is too strong a word. What it comes down to is that I love the characters and the writing but I was slightly tepid on the plot.
Janine: Same here.
Jennie: A sequence in which El leads other seniors on a mock obstacle course (which can, of course, still kill them) set up in the gym and meant to prepare them for graduation felt like it took up a *lot* of the book. It wasn’t boring, but I felt like it could have been shorter.
Janine: I have noticed that in a few of Novik’s books (most notably in Uprooted)—she can draw out her action sections too long. The nature of the obstacle course kept that from being too bad here, though. I actually geeked out on the cool visuals of the gym, and some of the training action (especially early on) was exciting.
Jennie: The book felt like it was divided mostly between “action” and “El figuring things out” and I think maybe it needed a little more of her interacting with other characters. I don’t know.
Janine: Yes, I agree with that. I ended up having three major issues.
The episodic nature of the plot, which you mentioned earlier, was my first issue. I’m much more likely to be riveted when there’s a powerful central thread that pulls me the whole way through.
Another issue I had was the expansion in scale. A Deadly Education was a personal story; it focused on El and a few others, on how she changes from outcast to embraced friend. Here the stage is wider; this book is largely about how El’s relationship with the entire school. That’s interesting, but for me, a story thread that is about the character’s heart is even more satisfying than one about a situation (however interesting a situation) that affects them and everyone around them. Not every reader feels that way, of course.
As an aside, it’s an easy prediction to make that book three will have an even larger scale—the entire world of wizards and witches—and I think it will have epic personal stakes too. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that somewhere in there the prophecy that’s been foreshadowed will have to be reckoned with. Because of that, and because of how The Last Graduate ends, I agree 100% that The Last Graduate is a bridge book.
Jennie: I’ll admit, I am excited to get out into the larger wizard world.
Janine: Me too. I think it’ll be amazing.
My third reason for liking this one less than A Deadly Education (although I did like it a lot) is that A Deadly Education is a feel-good story that ends on a euphoric note and this one isn’t.
Caveats aside, this book had a ton going for it. It’s hard to talk about most of that without spoiling the book, but I loved El’s relationship with her homeroom of freshmen, El’s dreams for a future involving a spell from her golden stone sutras, little Sudarat, the unsettled question of where Orion would go after graduation and the way El handled that, a couple of awesome artifices, the shifts in El and Orion’s relationship and the terrific development of Orion’s character. There were lovely smaller scenes, too, such as one in the cafeteria involving an injured student.
I’m giving this a B+. Jennie, what’s your grade?
Jennie: I *loved* both the cafeteria scene with the injured student and El’s dream about what she wants to do when she graduates.
It’s another A- for me, maybe a bit below the A- I gave A Deadly Education. I am so excited for the final book, though.