Class President: A Review of The Last Graduate, by Naomi Novik

Telling a serialized story—a story where each installment is explicitly connected to the next, forming a cohesive tale across multiple chapters—is nothing new to the world of books, especially for those of us who read fantasy or science-fiction.  This format has also been steadily taking over the world of television shows and movies to the point where, when a movie ends, watchers immediately start asking about the sequel.  The concept of a serialized story also pairs well with the cliffhanger, where a book ends upon a revelation, twist, or in the middle of a conflict.  While this format can make it appear daunting for new people to get into the story if they arrive late, it also serves to hook readers and keep them invested and excited for each new chapter.  Naomi Novik’s latest novel certainly keeps us wanting more.

The Last Graduate is the second novel in Novik’s excellent Scholomance series, and a direct follow-up to the first novel, A Deadly EducationA Deadly Education followed Galadriel “El” Higgins during her junior year at the titular school, the Scholomance.  A sort of magical high school in the world of the books, the Scholomance exists in its own pocket dimension, separate from the outside world in an effort to keep magic-eating monsters at bay.  However, as we quickly learn in that book, there are cracks in the defenses allowing the monsters to sneak in.  According to El’s narration, we learn that the majority of students who enter the school will not make it out alive.  El herself has spent her first few years preparing for her graduation, building up magic whenever she can while keeping herself alive using as little power as possible.  Over the course of the first novel in this series, we follow El as she learns to let people in, gaining allies and friends whom she trusts and who trust her in return.  She also gains a potential love interest in Orion Lake, an exceptionally powerful mage obsessed with hunting monsters.  A Deadly Education ends on its own cliffhanger, with the new freshmen class arriving, along with a note from El’s mother telling her to stay away from Orion Lake.

In the world of Scholomance, there are no days off, no summer vacation.  The previous novel ended with the senior class graduating, followed by the immediate arrival of the new freshmen class on the same day.  The Last Graduate picks up within seconds of this point and wastes no time getting readers back into the action.  In fact, since the narration is presented in the first-person point-of-view and the other characters know El well by this point, we do not actually see her name on page for several pages.  Now a senior, El suddenly finds herself in a position of relative power, as rumors of her heroics at the end of A Deadly Education start to make the rounds throughout the school.  Representatives of the various magical enclaves, miniature societies of magic users residing in relative safety, start courting her, suspecting that there is much more to her than meets the eye.  In fact, as we learned last time, El is prophesized to destroy magical society and is capable of feats of highly destructive magic, to the point where she has difficulty obtaining spells for mundane things.  The school, always presented as a quasi-intelligence, seemingly starts to target El as punishment for her actions, isolating her every chance it gets and forcing her constantly defend freshmen against monsters.  The first half of the novel concerns itself with these events, while also deepening El’s relationship with her friends and Orion.  However, things change in the second half as the new seniors begin preparing for graduation, and the twists begin.

As much as El protests during her narration of the two novels, she is not a static character.  While she sees herself as this hard-ass facing off against the world, always calculating and pursuing the best strategy for her needs, we see her character growth and development into someone different, someone warmer and less prickly.  The change begins in the previous novel with her learning to actually make friends and hold them close, and continues here despite her best efforts.  This time, we see that warmth through her interactions with her freshmen, the group the school assigns her to guard for half the school year.  She could ignore them, letting them fend for themselves like other seniors might, but she instead goes all in on protecting them, burning through her precious magic stores to keep them safe.  Ultimately, readers learn the truth about El that she has so diligently hidden; she is a genuinely good person.  Not only that, she is a bit of a sappy optimist at times, becoming more and more apparent as the book progresses.  She cannot stop herself from helping people, if it does not make strategic sense for her to do so, a tendency which ultimately drives the plot forward in the final act.  She even allows herself to open up to the possibility of a romance with Orion Lake, despite her mother’s warning and her own attempts to discourage his attentions.

Romance actually becomes a much larger part of The Last Graduate than readers of A Deadly Education would have thought.  Carrying over from the previous novel, and following her mother’s warning to stay away from Orion, El continues to shut down his awkward overtures at it becomes increasingly clear that he is attracted to her.  However, as the story progresses and El’s optimism and hope for the future continues to rise to the forefront, she begins to seriously consider the romance, allowing herself to express her attraction towards Orion.  Of course, the characters are still teenagers, leading to some genuinely funny scenes as they fumble through this confusion.  El’s magical familiar, a mouse named Precious, even bites Orion on the ear to stop them from kissing at one point, and El’s friend Aadhya has a very frank discussion about why sex in the Scholomance is a terrible idea, beginning with the lack of available contraceptives.  A personal favorite scene occurs when another girl is attempting to flirt with Orion, who does not notice at all, leading El to deliver a fantastic analogy relating sex to cake, inadvertently realizing that she might also be bisexual.  These are moments of sweetness and sometimes silliness and, as hope begins to take hold over the entire class, we see multiple characters opening up and allowing themselves access to feelings locked away for years.

Unlike some other fantasy stories that put more focus onto how magic is used to spells are cast, Novik understands that the exact mechanics of magic in this world are not what is important to the story.  It is enough to know that magic requires mana, and mana must be generated and stored in some way.  We see El struggle to generate mana in the first novel and beginning of this one, helping to showcase the difficulties faced by mages who do not benefit from belonging to one of the powerful enclaves.  The larger or more complex the spell, the more mana is required.  Because of this, we rarely see El use magic in A Deadly Education and, when she does, it is incredibly powerful and expensive.  Since she never resorts to dark magic, like many expect her to do, she is always struggling.  As a side effect, El is in great shape as mana can be generated from physical activity, such as exercise.  However, that begins to change in The Last Graduate.  At a certain point, El gains access to a large reservoir of mana, enough to power her spells for almost as long as she wants, and Novik seems to have a lot of fun showing off just how powerful El can be.  Suddenly, the prophecies about her start to make a lot of sense, and her classmates begin to look at her with equal parts admiration and fear.  Novik does do a good job at balancing her power, however, making sure that El is never a deus ex machina to the story.  As powerful as she is, there are still many things she cannot do, and every character has a strength which comes into play spectacularly during the final act.

Similarly to A Deadly Education, The Last Graduate also leaves off on a cliffhanger.  However, whereas the previous novel cliffhanger arrived after the main action set pieces and during a moment of relative calm, the cliffhanger here is right in the middle of the action, a hallmark of the second novel in a planned trilogy.  Novik has mastered the use of the cliffhanger here, and is sure to leave readers frustrated in the best possible way, wanting desperately to see what happens next.  I know it took me a minute to actually put the book down after reading the last sentence.  Without spoiling what happens, the events of the last chapter do not come out of nowhere.  The ending Novik has crafted here is the logical outcome leading from the characterization and actions during the book, and it makes sense what happens.  The previous book ended with the start of a mystery, but this book ends with a promise of an even bigger mystery and major changes.  Book three cannot come soon enough, I cannot wait to see where Novik sends El next.

The Last Graduate can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 10 days

Next on the List: Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

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