The Last Graduate (2021) completely sucked me in from start to finish! Galadriel has managed to survive three years at her deadly magical school, the Scholomance, with her junior year capped by an epic battle against a fearsome assembly of maleficaria (magical creatures that feast on wizards, especially youthful ones), as related in the first book in this fantasy series, A Deadly Education. Now El is in her last year at the Scholomance and has achieved her goal of becoming part of an alliance of fellow students (albeit a very small, less powerful one) who will protect each other when they run the gauntlet of ravenous mals that line the hallway leading to the graduation exit. And Orion Lake, the best mal-killer in the school, has progressed from mere annoyance to occasionally still aggravating but valued friend. Which makes it difficult when El’s clairvoyant mother sends her an urgent message to keep far away from Orion.
Even more upsetting for El is that now the Scholomance seems to have her personally in its cross-hairs. Instead of working toward graduation, she’s spending most of her time fighting mals that all seem to be focused exclusively on eating her, and perhaps the group of brand-new, hapless freshmen that the school has inexplicably thrown El in with in one of her classes.
I opened the door expecting to find something really horrible inside, and I did: eight freshmen, all of whom turned and stared at me like a herd of small and especially pitiful deer about to be mown down by a massive lorry. There wasn’t so much as a sophomore among the lot. “You’ve got to be joking,” I said with revulsion …
El is in a constant battle against her innate affinity for massively destructive and violent spells, and the Scholomance seems to be pushing her to make selfish choices, saving her mana or magical power for her own needs instead of helping random freshmen who mean nothing to her. But as El battles the mals and her own dark nature in order to save herself and her friends and yes, random freshmen, the scope of her concern for others starts to grow, leading to changes that are unprecedented in Scholomance history.
I initially had trouble getting into the first book, A Deadly Education. At first El was very prickly and sulky, a difficult main character to like, and there was a lot of info-dumping as Naomi Novik introduced us to the unique world and culture of the Scholomance. But by the end of that book I was fully on board with her character and anxious to see what happened next. And it didn’t disappoint, at all, in fact, The Last Graduate was far more than I expected.
Everything that gave me hesitation about the first book has been resolved. Novik is fantastic when she’s on (Spinning Silver is still one of my favorite fantasies ever), and she definitely is here. There are game-changers afoot in the pages of The Last Graduate. El and her classmates are led step by excruciating step toward a greater purpose than simply surviving and getting out of the Scholomance alive. I don’t think inspiring is too strong of a word.
The Scholomance has always had an international student body, and Novik better fleshes out the diversity in this second novel, with students from different cultures and races playing more significant roles. She also delves more deeply into themes of (often unexamined) privilege and how that affects choices and options. Along the way there are also some great moments of friendship, as El (still sensitive and snappish) grows closer to her classmates, especially the members of her alliance, and gradually learns that it’s okay to rely on others.
“Stop it!” she said. “I think that’s like the third time you’ve asked to be ditched. You’re like one of those puffer fish, the second anyone touches you a little wrong you go all bwoomp,” she illustrated with her hands, “trying to make them let go. We’ll let you know, how’s that?”
There are also some intriguing new characters, like Liesel, the abrasive, ruthless and utterly brilliant class valedictorian (“If you’re wondering how Liesel came into our discussions, so were the rest of us, but she was both impervious to hints that she wasn’t wanted, and also hideously smart, so we hadn’t actually been able to chase her from the planning”).
I’ll admit to a few qualms about the efficacy of the plan El and her class came up with in the end; it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out in the upcoming conclusion of this trilogy. And THAT ENDING. I hate to complain when the rest of the book was SO good, but really it is one of the most jaw-dropping cliffhangers I’ve ever seen. I would suggest that if you’re strongly averse to cliffhangers, you could wait to read this book until the next one comes out … but I wouldn’t want anyone to delay the sheer excitement and fun of The Last Graduate. It has been one of 2021’s reading highlights for me: one of the most exhilarating, delightful and moving books I’ve read this year. Every page was truly a pleasure. Well, except maybe that last one. :)
Oh, folks, THAT ENDING. I screamed out loud when I read the final sentence of The Last Graduate, and since I was holding a physical copy, I knew that was the end of this part of the story, but I still scrambled through the endpapers anyhow, hoping there would be more. But Naomi Novik is playing a long, careful game (one might say a trifle sadistically, but that’s only because I am so desperate for another SCHOLOMANCE book), and is doing so with expert care.
Like Tadiana, I definitely appreciated the stylistic changes made to differentiate this installment from A Deadly Education; as El Higgins widens her social circle, we see more of the diversity housed within the Scholomance, not just with regard to students from every possible background, but also their various magical specialities and the applications of such. I adore El’s friends Aadhya and Liu, her mouse-familiar Precious, and her bickering friendship with Orion, and it was so nice to see her retain her ever-present prickliness while having to admit that she actually cares for people, too. New characters like Liesel and her ruthless efficiency add quite a lot of drama into the mix, as it becomes undeniable that, as difficult to get along with as she may be, even she deserves a fair chance at surviving graduation.
We also see many more mals, and then we see a lot fewer mals, for reasons which become clearer as El’s final school year draws to a close and she begins to consider her destiny as foretold by her grandmother. There are also some intriguing hints about things going on in the magical world outside the Scholomance — the Bangkok enclave has been wiped out, for reasons no student can suss out, but as there’s no way for students to communicate with anyone or anything once they’re inside, there isn’t a lot they can do about this news, so it has to be put on the back burner while they handle the more pressing problems in front of them, like agglos breeding in the shower heads or maggots in the rice pudding. (Hurk.)
I, too, have a lot of questions about how The Plan works in actual practice, what its ramifications will be both for the students and the magical world, and most of all, what happens next for El. Literally everything has been upended at the end of The Last Graduate, and I have no idea Novik has in store, but I guarantee I’m going to find out as soon as I can get my hands on Book Three. If you like magical schools, convoluted destinies, strong-willed characters who learn that compassion is not weakness, and a truly impressive amount of world-building and magical lore, get on board the SCHOLOMANCE train. I can’t promise it won’t break your heart, but it’ll be a fantastic ride, all the same.