The Last Graduate

by Naomi Novik

Cover image

Series: The Scholomance #2
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 0-593-12887-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 388

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This is a direct sequel to A Deadly Education, by which I mean it starts in the same minute at which A Deadly Education ends (and let me say how grateful I am for a sequel that doesn't drop days, months, or years between books). You do not want to read this series out of order.

This book is also very difficult to review without spoiling either it or the previous book, so please bear with me if I'm elliptical in my ravings. Because The Last Graduate is so good. So good, not only as a piece of writing, but as a combination of two of my favorite tropes in fiction, one of which I can't talk about because of spoilers. I adored this book in a way that is not entirely rational.

I will attempt a review below anyway, but if you liked the first book, just stop reading here and go read the second one. It's more of everything I loved in the first book except even better, it did some things I was expecting and some things I didn't expect at all, and it's just so ridiculously good. Just be aware that it has another final-line cliffhanger. The third book is coming in (hopefully) 2022.

Novik handles the cliffhanger at the end of the previous book beautifully, which is worth noting because there were so many ways in which it could have gone poorly. One of the best things about this series is Novik's skill at writing El's relationship with her mother, even though her mother has not appeared in the series so far. El argues with her mother's voice in her head, tells stories about her, wonders what her mother would think of her classmates (or in some cases knows exactly what her mother would think of her classmates), and sometimes makes the explicit decision to not be her mother. The relationship has the sort of messy complexity, shared history, and underlying respect that many people experience in life but that I've rarely seen portrayed this well in a fantasy novel.

Novik's presentation of that relationship works because El's voice is so strong. Within fifteen minutes of starting The Last Graduate, I was already muttering "I love this book" to myself, mostly because of how much I enjoy El's sarcastic, self-deprecating internal commentary. Novik strikes a balance between self-awareness, snark, humor, and real character growth that rivals Murderbot in its effectiveness of first-person perspective. It carries the story over a few weak points, such as a romance that didn't do much for me. Even when I didn't care about part of the plot, I cared about El's opinion of the plot and what it said about El's growing understanding of how to navigate the world.

A Deadly Education was scene and character establishment. El insisted on being herself and following her own morals and social rules, and through that found some allies. The Last Graduate gives El enough breathing space to make more nuanced decisions. This is the part of growing up where one realizes the limitations of one's knee-jerk reactions and innate moral judgment. It's also when it becomes hard to trust success that is entirely outside of one's previous experience. El was not a kid who had friends, so she doesn't know what to do with them now that she has them. She's barely able to convince herself that they are friends.

This is one of the two fictional tropes I mentioned, the one that I can talk about (at least briefly) without major spoilers. I have such a soft spot for stubborn, sarcastic, principled characters who refuse to play by the social rules that they think are required to make friends and who then find friends who like them for themselves. The moment when they start realizing this has happened and have no idea how to deal with it or how to be a person who has friends is one I will happily read over and over again. I enjoyed this book from the beginning, but there were two points when it grabbed my heart and I was all in. The first one is a huge spoiler that I can't talk about. The second was this paragraph:

[She] came round to me and put her arm around my waist and said under her breath, "Hey, she can be taught," with a tease in her voice that wobbled a little, and when I looked at her, her eyes were bright and wet, and I put my arm around her shoulders and hugged her.

You'll know it when you get there.

The Last Graduate also gives the characters other than El and Orion more room, which is part of how it handles the chosen one trope. It's been obvious since early in the first book that Orion is a sort of chosen one, and it becomes obvious to the reader that El may be as well. But Novik doesn't let the plot focus only on them; instead, she uses that trope to look at how alliances and collective action happen, and how no one can carry the weight by themselves. As El learns more and gains power, she also becomes less central to the plot resolution and has to learn how to be less self-reliant. This is not a book where one character is trained to save the world. It's a book where she manages to enlist the support of a kick-ass project manager and becomes part of a team.

Middle books of a trilogy are notoriously challenging. Often they're travel books: the first book sets up a problem, the second book moves the characters both physically and emotionally into a position to solve the problem, and the third book is the payoff. Travel books often sag. They can feel obligatory but somewhat boring, like a chore on the way to the third-book climax. The Last Graduate is not a travel book; it is, instead, a pivot book, which is my favorite form of trilogy. It's a book that rewrites the problem the first book set up, both resolving it and expanding the scope beyond what the reader had expected. This is immensely satisfying when done well, and Novik does it extremely well.

This is not a flawless book. There are some pacing hiccups, there is a romance angle that didn't work for me (although it does arrive at some character insights that I thought were spot on), and although I think Novik is doing something interesting with the trope, there is a lot of chosen one power escalation happening here. It's not the sort of book that I can claim is perfectly written. Instead, it's the sort of book that uses some of my favorite plot elements and emotional beats in such an effective way and with such a memorable character that I do not have it in me to care about any of the flaws. Your mileage may therefore vary, but I would be happy to read books like this until the end of time.

As mentioned above, The Last Graduate ends on another cliffhanger. This time I was worried that Novik might have ended the series there, since there's enough of an internal climax that I could imagine some literary fiction (which often seems allergic to endings) would have stopped here. Thankfully, Novik's web site says this is not the case. The next year is going to be a difficult wait.

The third book of this series is going to be incredibly difficult to write, and I hope Novik is up to the challenge she's made for herself. But she handled the transition between the first and second book so well, and this book is so good that I have a lot of hope. If the third book is half as good as I'm hoping, this is going to be one of my favorite fantasy series of all time.

Followed by an as-yet-untitled third book.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-11-13

Last modified and spun 2021-11-14