Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 20 September 2022)
Series: Lesson Three of the Scholomance
Length: 408 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Naomi Novik ends her addictive and clever Scholomance trilogy in a big way with the very impressive The Golden Enclaves, which takes the protagonists out of the school and into a whole new world of trouble.
For the last few years I have been having an epic time with the exceptional Scholomance series by acclaimed author Naomi Novik. Novik, who is best known for her Temeraire series, as well as the standalone novels Uprooted and Spinning Silver, has been absolutely killing it with the Scholomance books, which serve as a compelling, dark homage to classic magical school fantasy novels. Set within the deadly magic school, the Scholomance, the trilogy follows a group of teenage magic users who are attempting to hone their skills while surviving the school and the many dangerous magical creatures, known as maleficaria (mals) who inhabit it. The first book, A Deadly Education, introduced the reader to protagonist Galadriel “El” Higgins, a loner student who has a big secret, she is an unbelievably powerful magic user, capable of easily unleashing destructive magic that could level cities. Teaming up with Orion Lake, a mal hunter with a hero complex, El attempts to survive the school and ensure her and her friends survive. A Deadly Education was an excellent read and it ended up being one of my favourite books of 2020. Novik followed it up perfectly last year with The Last Graduate (one of my favourite books of 2021), which brilliantly continued the story while also ending it on a traumatic cliff-hanger which I may never forgive Novik for. Needless to say, I have been extremely excited for The Golden Enclaves and it was one of my most anticipated reads for 2022.
After trapping most of the worlds mals in the Scholomance and untethering it from reality, El looks to have finally defeated fate. Instead of turning into the city-destroying dark witch she was prophesied to become, she is now a hero who has saved generations of young magic users from needing to hide in the deadly school. However, her victory has come at a great cost, as the love of her life, Orion Lake, chose to stay behind in the dying school to wage his eternal war against the mals, including the ravenous maw-mouth that finally claimed him.
Traumatised, El attempts to regain her sanity at home, her only plan to one day implement her dream of ending the elite enclave system and using the Golden Stone sutras book she liberated from the school to bring about a new era of magical communities. However, fate still has other ideas in store for her, and El is about to come face-to-face with the full horrors that her world has in store for her.
Someone is attacking the previously protected enclaves, striking at their very cores, and inflicting untold damage on those who rely on them for shelter. When two fall within days of El coming back into the real world, she is recruited to find out who is responsible and hunt them down before an all-out enclave war erupts amongst the world’s magic users. However, El is far more concerned with finding a way back into the Scholomance, the school she fought so hard to destroy, and attempt to either save Orion or kill the maw-mouth that ate him. However, her mission will lead her to a dark truth that lies at the very heart of the enclave system and which will turn the entire world on its head. Worse, it will finally force El to face the truth, that she really is destined to be a destroyer, no matter how much she hates it.
There is a lot to unpack here with The Golden Enclaves and it is partly one of the reasons why it has taken me so long to write a review for it. I honestly did not know what to expect when The Golden Enclaves was released, especially as it was missing the great dark magic school setting which was one of the things that I most liked about the first two books. It was also clear that Novik would have to work very hard to follow on from her last book after she left it on such a major and heartbreaking cliff-hanger, and I did not know if this book would live up to all these expectations. Despite these concerns, I dove into The Golden Enclaves as soon as I got my hands on it, as I desperately wanted to see how everything was going to end. I quickly powered through the book itself and I found the final product to be extremely interesting and not at all what I was expecting. I did end up giving this book a full five-star rating, but this rating comes with some caveats.
Firstly, I should state that I really loved The Golden Enclaves and I felt that it perfectly wrapped up the series. Not only do the main characters get some further interesting development, as well as even more trauma and emotional damage, but the story goes in some very unique directions which ties together all the various loose ends. The story itself is pretty fast paced, if loaded with a lot of fantasy exposition, and follows on right from the events of The Last Graduate. The impact of Orion Lake’s decision to stay behind in the Scholomance really messes with El and she spends a good part of the book attempting to come to terms with it, often in some very unhealthy ways. However, before she can get too bereaved, she is forced to help the enclaves (magical communities that offer protection from mals to magic users) to try and discover who is responsible for destroying them. This results in a compelling, multi-continent trip where she visits various magic communities, gets involved with deadly world politics, as well as checking in with the supporting cast from the first two books, trying to discover answers. El also searches for a way to rescue Orion from the Scholomance, which culminates in her visiting the mostly destroyed school and finding out some heartbreaking revelations about the man she loves. Those aren’t the only big secrets El and her companions uncover as they soon discover the true terrible price of the enclave system, as well as who is truly behind the destruction of the enclaves and why. Novik layers these revelations perfectly, so each new one is even more impactful than the last, culminating in a particularly major gut punch regarding El and her prophesied destiny. All this leads up to a fantastic and complex final confrontation where El is faced with a terrible choice and must try to find a way out of it. Everything ends on an interesting and mostly satisfying conclusion, which I think ended the series on the right hopeful note, especially after all the dark trauma the characters have witnessed.
While the story itself is pretty compelling, I personally don’t think it stood on its own legs as much as the first two books in the series. Not only does it get a bit slow in places, but parts of the big conclusion are a little weak and not as impressive as I was expecting. Readers also really need to have read the first two books in the series; The Golden Enclaves would be pretty hard to appreciate without some context going in. For these reasons and a few more (I really missed the school), I might have been tempted to give this a lower rating if not for the big revelations which are deeply connected to the events of the first few books. Novik expertly ties the entire series together in The Golden Enclaves and if you look at this novel from a larger series perspective, than it is a pretty exceptional book with some very awesome moments to it. You soon release just how clever Novik has been with her first two novels as she previously set up every big revelation in The Golden Enclaves extremely well. The various discussions about the enclaves, the outside world and the character’s history comes full circle in this final entry and every lingering question you ever had is answered completely here. I was so damn impressed with how everything was wrapped up, especially with some emotionally devastating discoveries that were in line with the darker tone of this series, that I honestly could not put this book down. Novik really is an extremely talented author with an exceptional ability for planning out long-term storylines and this book really proves it.
In addition, I also deeply appreciated how Novik expanded and explained various fantasy elements that she introduced in the previous books and merged them into her outstanding story. While many of these fantasy elements, such as enclaves, maw-mouths, the creation of the Scholomance and the magical politics that dominate the world, have been discussed in the prior novels, Novik brings everything about them together in this final read and it works extremely well. The secret histories and crazy lore behind these events are fully revealed in The Golden Enclaves, and the true horror about magic and what people have done to hold onto it is pretty damn shocking. Novik does a remarkable job in filling in all the gaps she purposefully left out of the first two books and the reader finally gets to appreciate just how complex and integral to the plot they truly were. She also has a lot of fun expanding out the magical universe substantially in this final book as the reader is finally introduced to some settings outside of the magical school. I loved the elaborate international enclaves that the protagonist visits throughout this final book and the subsequent political squabbles, discussions of magical castes and the larger worldview of magic becomes a fascinating part of the book. All this intriguing expansion, as well as the impressive revelations about certain magical elements in the previous books, mostly make up for the lack of the magical school setting you’ve come to love so much, and I think that Novik handled a story outside of the Scholomance extremely well.
The final thing I want to mention is the outstanding character work contained within The Golden Enclaves. While I don’t want to go into too much detail here, I think that Novik hit the main characters out of the park in this final book and I loved the brilliant examinations of trauma, grief and deep psychological damage that many of them had after spending years inside a hellish death school. El continues to shine as the main protagonist and only point-of-view character, and her expansive, if highly cynical worldview, helps you get stuck into the narrative. El goes through a huge emotional roller coaster in The Golden Enclaves, as she is wracked with guilt, grief and anger for much of it, especially after her perceived failure to save Orion from himself. Watching her break down at the start of the book is extremely heartbreaking, and she never really seems to recover as she keeps finding herself getting dragged into crazy events in the real world. Many of these events impact her even further, especially once she realises just how evil many of the enclavers are, and she must work very hard to not unleash her destructive fury. However, one major final revelation really knocks her around, especially as it ties into her extended family who have long abandoned her, as well as her destined place in the world. I deeply appreciated the outstanding work that Novik put into El, and I also really enjoyed the supporting cast who were featured here as well. Many of your favourite characters from the first two books make another appearance here, and it was very interesting to see how they were dealing with the aftermath of their Scholomance education, as well as seeing their place in the wider world. There are a few surprising choices for major supporting characters in The Golden Enclaves, and some interesting interactions that resulted. Without spoiling too much, I will say that Orion does appear in The Golden Enclaves, and the storylines around him, especially the deep dive into his past, prove to be an outstanding and traumatic part of the plot. An exceptional expansion of the amazing character work that was such as distinctive feature of the first two novels.
Overall, The Golden Enclaves proved to be an epic final chapter in Naomi Novik’s amazing Scholomance series and I had an outstanding time reading it. While I did think that The Golden Enclaves had a few flaws, the way that Novik used it to tie the entire series together blew my mind and I was so deeply impressed with how every loose thread and inventive fantasy element was dragged together to create an outstanding final inclusion. The subsequent shocking and dark revelations, powerful character work and the compelling expansion of Novik’s fantasy universe help to make this a pretty incredible book and it is one that I had a wonderful time reading. I really cannot get over how well set up this final novel was and I think that it serves as a brilliant conclusion to one of my most favourite recent fantasy series. As such, I have to award The Golden Enclaves a five-star rating as one of the better books of the year, especially as I don’t think Novik could have written a more powerful and moving end to the incredible Scholomance books.