Book Review: The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Title: The Last Graduate

Author: Naomi Novik

Series: Scholomance #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: A budding dark sorceress determined not to use her formidable powers uncovers yet more secrets about the workings of her world in the stunning sequel to A Deadly Education, the start of Naomi Novik’s groundbreaking crossover series. At the Scholomance, El, Orion, and the other students are faced with their final year—and the looming specter of graduation, a deadly ritual that leaves few students alive in its wake. El is determined that her chosen group will survive, but it is a prospect that is looking harder by the day as the savagery of the school ramps up. Until El realizes that sometimes winning the game means throwing out all the rules . . . -Goodreads

The Review:

The Last Graduate was a completely satisfying sequel.

Hearing that the series had been expanded to three books, I got a little cranky and put off reading this second book for almost a year. I was certain it was going to be nothing but filler content and didn’t want a disappointing read after having absolutely loved Deadly Education (book 1). Well, I need to take off my fortune-telling hat and stop being so cynical, because I loved this installment.

It wrapped up the plot I think was originally planned for the duology, but had enough substance and other points of interest to warrant a third book. It doesn’t feel like a cash grab, and in fact had I come to the end of the series at this point with no third book on the horizon, I would’ve been pissed. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

The first book had a lot of great classroom learning scenes and let me explore the school to a pretty satisfying degree. This second book focused more on the bigger picture, spliced up here and there with some great training sequences. The main character, which I hear tell is the most off-putting thing about the series to some readers, remains one of my personal draws to the story. She’s anything but typical, and continues to cause most of her problems with her attitudes and perspectives. I find it completely delightful to read about someone so flawed, especially since she’s still had a pretty good growth arc thus far.

Despite the fact that the book focuses on teens in a school setting, this book does not read YA to me in the slightest. It would be remiss to tell a story with young characters without addressing hormonal complications, but all of that is secondary to the main plot of the story. It also highlights cliques and other typical school-aged drama, but from the standpoint of how one’s social life affects their ability to survive this deadly school rather than from an emotional one. It makes me so happy to find a magic school series with a young female character that doesn’t ring of YA baggage. They’re hard to find.

Overall, this was a great continuation, and I can’t wait to see how the whole thing ends in Golden Enclave this fall.

Recommendations: if you love school settings, appreciate atypical characters, aren’t afraid of an unconventional narrative, and are in the mood for something off the beaten path, this is an excellent pick.

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by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Title: A Deadly Education

Author: Naomi Novik

Series: Scholomance #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Lesson One of the Scholomance: Learning has never been this deadly. A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets. There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere. El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students. -Goodreads

The Review:

I wasn’t sure about A Deadly Education at first, but it soon shaped itself into one of my top reads of 2020.

I loved the setting (Scholomance – the place gifted teenagers go to learn how to survive against magic-seeking monsters). Of all the magical schools I’ve read about (pretty much everything I can get my hands on… it’s an auto-add subject), this is one of the most unique. There are no teachers. And really there are no rules. But the stakes are deadly, which is the only way I think a place like this works. Teens need the ultimate incentive to do well in school and make good connections. If they don’t, they die. Even the ones who work hard and play it right sometimes die. Novik, you have my full attention. And not only because I love learning about magical stuff. It provided all the school setting feels with a dystopian high-stakes attitude. Definitely a unique combination.

The source of my hesitation was the main character. She came across incredibly unlikable from the start with this “poor me” attitude that frankly seemed to me to be the biggest cause of her problems. Sure, she had a lot of obstacles to overcome, but I saw her as mostly in her own way and those obstacles a minor secondary issue. That said, the more I read the more I realized I actually liked reading about an atypical heroine. Her choices were interesting and her motives were unusual. I wouldn’t call her an anti-hero, per se, but maybe one in training. It’s also incredibly nice to read about flawed characters because, whether I like them or not, I always find them relatable to one degree or another. This gifted, ornery, always exasperated girl won me over, and I now find myself eager to read what she’ll do next – the unexpected is exciting!

And finally, a book with a school setting that’s not riddled with YA angst.

Oh, sure, the main character is put-upon and angsty, but it’s in a much different vein than the troppy YA stuff I’m referring to. For starters, the POV isn’t consumed by a love interest, and so was able to focus on the many other interesting problems prevalent throughout the book. The change of pace was wonderful. I realize this was not written for the YA market, so obviously it’s bound to be different. But it’s hard to find a magic school setting with a teenaged female character in anything other than that market (recs welcome). I hope after this, we’ll see a few more.

I also came to really appreciate the writing style. Incredibly conversational, it was infused with countless strategic tirades of information. It had such a strong voice, the plethora of info dumps didn’t bother me even though I think my critiquing radar should’ve been beeping off the charts. I’ve never been quite as bothered by info dumps as other readers. In fact, I had to practice recognizing them so I could avoid them in my own writing. For me it has always been more an issue of subject matter – if I’m interested in learning about whatever is being dumped, bring it on. There were a lot of explanation passages in this book – some of them mayhaps more long-winded than they needed to be – but most of them fit within the voice of the POV and served to reveal character, as her opinions overshadowed everything she was sharing. I didn’t mind it, but I can see how others might.

Recommendations: a huge win for the year! It took a few chapters to get going, but the setting, writing style, and ornery main character eventually won me over. It managed to incorporate all the things I love about magic school stories without the overdone tropes. Novik brought a unique spin to the idea, and I’m hopeful others will love it as much as I did. :)

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by Niki Hawkes