Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 28 September 2021)
Series: Lesson Two of the Scholomance
Length: 388 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Prepare to return to the deadliest magical school of all time in The Last Graduate, the epic second lesson of the Scholomance series by bestselling fantasy author Naomi Novik.
Novik is a fantastic author who has produced some excellent fantasy novels throughout her career, including her bestselling Temeraire series (set during a re-imagined Napoleonic War fought with dragons), as well as her standalone reads Uprooted and Spinning Silver. However, I personally know Novik best from her awesome 2020 book, A Deadly Education, which was one of my favourite books from last year. A Deadly Education had an awesome story that followed Galadriel “El” Higgins, a student in the Scholomance, a lethal magical school filled with all manner of magical monsters known as maleficaria (mals). This was an outstanding read with a really clever and intense narrative, and I have been really looking forward to seeing how the story continued for a while now. As a result, I was excited when I found out that the sequel, The Last Graduate, was coming out, and it swiftly became one of my most anticipated reads for 2021.
Following her daring mission to reactivate the school’s defences and kill as many maleficaria as possible, El finally thinks she has a chance to relax and prepare for her gruelling final year at the Scholomance. Not only must she continue her exhaustive magical studies, but the entire year leads up to a lethal graduation ceremony, where the students must run a gauntlet of mals at the school’s entry hall to escape back into the real world. Now with allies, friends and even an extremely odd love interest in moody warrior mage Orion Lake, El has a chance of escaping the Scholomance without being forced to rely on her immense affinity for the most destructive spells in existence, which could result in the entire student body being vaporised.
However, the sentient Scholomance appears to have different ideas for El and resolves to make her life as difficult as possible, assigning her impossible classes and isolated study periods. Worse, it appears that the school is deliberately funnelling as many mals towards El as possible to kill her and steal her magical energy. Determined to defeat the school and escape, El is forced to make some new alliances to survive the year and make it to graduation. At the same time, she needs to navigate her unusual relationship with Orion, especially after receiving a mysterious warning from her mother to stay away from him.
The closer El gets to graduation, the harder life becomes, especially after the scope of her magical abilities is revealed to the entire school. Now targeted by rival factions within the Scholomance and unsure who she can trust, El will need to pull together every terrible power at her command to survive. However, not everything is what it seems in the Scholomance, and the school has one final lesson to teach El: sometimes there are things far more important than surviving.
Wow, just wow, now that was a damn impressive sequel. The Last Graduate is an epic and incredible read that proved to be utterly addictive in all the right ways. I had an absolute blast reading this exceptional fantasy novel and I ended up powering through the last half of the novel in a couple of hours, only to be utterly traumatised by its cliffhanger ending. It was so much fun getting back into this detailed and compelling setting, and it was great to see the main characters continue to evolve throughout, even if they lead to tragedy and heartbreak. This was an outstanding read that gets a full five-star rating from me.
This latest book from Novik contains a pretty epic narrative which covers El’s entire final year within the Scholomance. The story continues immediately after the end of A Deadly Education, and I would strongly recommend reading the first book before attempting The Last Graduate, as the initial Scholomance book contained a lot of interesting detail and character development that is useful to understand. This second book starts off at a good, restrained pace, mostly settling things down after the fast-paced conclusion of A Deadly Education and allowing the protagonist and point-of-view character, El, to settle back into the rhythms of the school. The author utilises a very detail-rich brand of storytelling, which helps to produce quite a rich a vibrant novel, even if it did slow down my initial reading speed. However, the pace picks up significantly once it becomes apparent that things in the school have changed, as El finds herself the only person in the school being attacked by mals. This troubling situation forces her to turn to her friends and new allies to survive, especially as she is convinced that the school itself is out to get her. This eventually leads to the reveal that El is an all-powerful force of destruction, which greatly alters the balance of power in the school, as El is caught between the various enclaves who view her as a major weapon both inside the Scholomance and in the national rivalries outside of it. This results in an immense amount of drama and conflict, as El fights to remain neutral and survive, while also coming to terms with who she is and the terrible magical system she finds herself a part for.
All this drama, fighting and conflict leads up to the big event of the book, the graduation gauntlet, something that the author has been building up since the start of the series. However, nothing goes as expected with graduation, as everything about it, including the lead-in and the training is very different than in previous years. The reasons why are finally revealed as part of a very interesting twist which changes everything about how you thought the novel was going to end. This alteration leads to an excellent conclusion which perfectly works in all the story elements that have set up throughout the course of the two novels. The final scenes are extremely dramatic, with some big moments and epic displays of magic that will keep you on your toes. I honestly could not put the book down during this part of the novel as I was desperate to see how everything ended, and then we got to the very last sentence. Ooh, that last sentence, how much I hate and love you at the same time. Novik sets up a really massive cliffhanger that was both perfect and enraging at the very same time. I was literally yelling my shock and frustration at the book (and Novik by extension) as I read and re-read that sentence, as I could not believe that she left it like that. I mean, mad respect for setting it up and making me care so much for the characters so that I was deeply impacted by it, but at the same time, how dare you make me feel like that. Naturally, the third and final book in the Scholomance series is now one of my most anticipated reads for 2022 (which is what Novik intended, evil genius that she is), and I am extremely eager to see what happens next.
I deeply appreciate the awesome setting that is the Scholomance. This sentient magical school is such a dark and wonderful setting, and Novik has built it up perfectly throughout the course of the series. I absolutely love this brilliantly perverse version of the classical magical school setting, especially as Novik has spent an amazing amount of time establishing it, providing the reader with a ton of detail and anecdotes about the education, living arrangements and many, many, hazards involved with living there. This detail continues in The Last Graduate, as Novik expands on the school, showing more fantastic elements to it, and even throwing in a few intriguing changes that impact the status-quo of everybody there. There is so much fun detail here, and I loved the examination of how living in such a dangerous and enclosed building would impact the people living there. There is one amazing scene where El channels a lot of magic into the school, accidentally restarting a simulation of the outdoors. The subsequent wave of grief from all the students at seeing the sun again was pretty terrible, and it showed just how damaging this situation is, even though it is saving their lives. I also really appreciated the interesting new changes that Novik introduced to school, especially as it significantly alters what you think you knew about it. I also liked how Novik also provided some additional detail of the wider world outside the Scholomance, expanding on some of the details that were already set up in A Deadly Education. There are several hints about big events occurring outside of the school which will probably come into play in the third novel, and there is also an interesting examination about the rivalries between the various enclaves, magical societies with selective membership and strong political power. I cannot wait to see what awesome new details and settings that Novik will add into her next book, and I have no doubt it will be really cool to learn about.
Aside from that outstanding story, the epic finale, and the wildly inventive setting, I also must highlight the great characters featured within the novel. There is an interesting and memorable array of characters featured throughout the Scholomance series, although most of the book focused on protagonist El. El is a fantastic and intense character, mainly because she holds a mythical level of destructive power, an incredible affinity for combat and death spells, and is also some form of prophesised destroyer, which caused her father’s side of her family to try and kill her (a bold move for pacifists). This, as well as the fact that her power makes everyone she encounters subconsciously uneasy, turned El into quite a guarded person, and much of the first book focused on her coming out of her shell and finally making friends. This development continues in The Last Graduate, as El is forced to make even more friends and alliances. This has a pretty positive impact on her personality, especially as she learns to trust people, and while she still has a mostly prickly disposition, she does mellow out a little more. There is also a rather interesting major plot point when the full range of her powers becomes apparent to the entire school. This makes her a target for everyone in the school, with the various enclave students either trying to recruit her or kill her. This forces El once again into a defensive mode, although she is eventually able to overcome for the greater good of herself and the school. I deeply appreciated El’s growth as a character in this novel, and it was great to see this wildly unstable and sassy protagonist once again.
The other major character of the book is El’s love interest, Orion Lake. Orion is another interesting protagonist, as he is a powerful mage with a hero complex who gains his powers from killing mals. A member of the exclusive and powerful New York enclave, Orion is considered more of an asset than a person by his family, which has resulted in everyone seeing him as either a god or a weapon. This, combined with his love for fighting monsters, has left Orion a little messed up, and he ends up imprinting on El as she is the first character to treat him like a normal person and call him out for his stupid heroic mindset. Orion is a very complex and nuanced character, and it has been interesting to see him develop, especially as you only really get to see him through El’s cynical eyes. While he is a little less utilised in this novel, he still has several interesting challenges, including having substantially less magical energy and power due to him encountering very few mals in his final year. There is also the rather awkward but sweet romance he has with El. Both these characters are messed up in their own unique ways, but together they nearly make one emotionally function human. Their romance is a major part of the book’s plot, and Novik works in some compelling and moving storylines around it. I felt that all of Orion’s character arc was really well written, and I deeply appreciated the way that Novik cleverly set up some key moments surrounding him.
Aside from El and Orion, The Last Graduate contains a fantastic array of supporting characters in the form of the other Scholomance students. While Novik did introduce most of these characters up in A Deadly Education, I felt that they got a lot more attention in The Last Graduate, with the author taking the time to explore them a little further. I quite liked the increased focus on these supporting characters, as there are an interesting array of personalities, powers and allegiances, which helped make the plot more exciting and filled with intrigue. I particularly enjoyed the various members of El’s alliance, each of whom get a few key moments throughout the book and prove to be quite fun to follow. I also must highlight El’s new familiar, a mouse called Precious, who gains a sort of sentience throughout the book, and immediately starts trying to sabotage El and Orion’s relationship. Each of these characters added something fun to the overall tapestry of The Last Graduate’s story, and I look forward to seeing what happens to all of them in the final book.
With The Last Graduate, the amazing Naomi Novik has substantially jumped up my list of favourite authors, even if I am severely annoyed with her about that brilliant, if cruel, cliffhanger. This excellent second novel in the Scholomance series is one of the best books I have read all year, and it is a highly recommended read. I had an outstanding time once again exploring this messed-up magical school, and the complex characters and unique storylines helped to create an intense and powerful read. I honestly cannot wait to read the third and final book in this series, even though I fully expect Novik to do everything in her power to break my heart. If you have not started reading the Scholomance series, you are missing out big time!