The Last Graduate: A dubious sanctuary for magical students

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Last Graduate by Naomi Novik science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

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. :)

~Tadiana Jones


The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsOh, 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.

~Jana Nyman

Published in September 2021. In Wisdom, Shelter. That’s the official motto of the Scholomance. I suppose you could even argue that it’s true—only the wisdom is hard to come by, so the shelter’s rather scant. Our beloved school does its best to devour all its students—but now that I’ve reached my senior year and have actually won myself a handful of allies, it’s suddenly developed a very particular craving for me. And even if I somehow make it through the endless waves of maleficaria that it keeps throwing at me in between grueling homework assignments, I haven’t any idea how my allies and I are going to make it through the graduation hall alive. Unless, of course, I finally accept my foretold destiny of dark sorcery and destruction. That would certainly let me sail straight out of here. The course of wisdom, surely. But I’m not giving in—not to the mals, not to fate, and especially not to the Scholomance. I’m going to get myself and my friends out of this hideous place for good—even if it’s the last thing I do. With keen insight and mordant humor, Novik reminds us that sometimes it is not enough to rewrite the rules—sometimes, you need to toss out the entire rulebook.

FOLLOW:  Facebooktwitterrsstumblr  SHARE:  Facebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail
If you plan to buy this book, you can support FanLit by clicking on the book cover above and buying it (and anything else) at Amazon. It costs you nothing extra, but Amazon pays us a small referral fee. Click any book cover or this link. We use this income to keep the site running. It pays for website hosting, postage for giveaways, and bookmarks and t-shirts. Thank you!

TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

View all posts by

JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

View all posts by

8 comments

  1. Totally agree, 5 stars for me as well. And the ending left me with my mouth literally hanging open, staring at the book in my hand. I didn’t know people actually did that in real life, but apparently they do. Fantastic story, can’t wait for the next.

  2. OK. The publisher sent me the audiobook and I wasn’t planning to read it since Tadiana and Jana reviewed it (I tend to skip what we don’t need reviewed) but now I’m going to. With my college age daughter.

  3. Jana Nyman /

    I can’t wait to hear what both you and your daughter think of it, Kat!

Review this book and/or Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published.