The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik (book review).

February 5, 2022 | By | Reply More

Imagine a school where, at fourteen, you disappear inside and don’t come out for four years. That’s four years when you don’t see the sun or the sky or have any communication with your family, unless you have siblings whose time overlaps with yours. There are no actual teachers but because the whole school, which houses four thousand students, is a magical construct. It gives you tasks to do and if you don’t do them on time or to a high enough standard you get more.

In practical subjects, if you get it wrong it is likely to blow up and kill you. To make it more fun, there are a host of varieties of creatures, called mals, whose sole purpose in life is to eat wizards. All the students have magical ability. You need mana to cast the spells that are going to help them survive for less than a quarter of them expect to graduate. You spend the four years accumulating spells, the mana to cast them and allies to help you survive.

On graduation day, you have to run the gauntlet of mals that accumulate in the Graduation Hall hoping for an easy meal while you race for the doors and freedom.

In the first volume, ‘A Deadly Education’, El (short for Galadriel) got through her third year and surprised herself, after two years of being shunned, by making an alliance with Liu and Aadhya. Alliances are the best way of giving themselves a chance of graduation. The other factor is Orion Lake. He delights on killing mals and accumulates mana by doing so, at the end of ‘A Deadly Education’, El, Orion and a group of others had managed to fix the machinery that should scour the Graduation Hall, allowing the seniors to get out relatively safely.

At the start of the new school year and the new volume, ‘The Last Graduate’, El feels she is being picked on by the Scholomance. The schedule it gives her keeps her isolated for lessons from her year group and in an out of the way corner spending Wednesday afternoons with a group of freshmen. El expects to be attacked by mals and she is. It takes her a while to realise that she is the only one. The Scholomance, it seems, has it in for her.

Six months before graduation, the gymnasium becomes the training ground of the seniors so they can hone their skills in preparation for the run to freedom. As the runs get harder and only El and Orion seem to be able to fight their way through, El gets angry and decides that she is going to get all her year group out safely. She doesn’t know how but she is determined.

She encounters opposition but, gradually, even those who think she is crazy begin to be influenced by her persistence. Where once it was every student for themselves they begin to help each other and a plan begins to take shape.

Often middle books of a trilogy and, there is a further volume to come, are make-weights keeping the interest before the big denouement in volume three. This isn’t. There is action in plenty. The otherwise relentless pace is broken by El’s musings which push forward the reader’s understanding of the concept of the Scholomance and the dangerous world in which the students will be returning to. There are a lot of books about schools for wizards but this series, so far, is a cut above all of them. Because El and her year group are seventeen, this could be regarded as a YA book but the characters have learnt early on to make adult decisions or die.

At times, they do act like the teenagers they are but the depth of personality goes further as they discover their own strengths. El, Orion and the others are people who you want to know better. An excellent book.

Pauline Morgan

February 2022

(pub: Del Rey, New York, 2021. 388 page hardback. Price: $28.00 (US), $34.95 (CAN), £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-593-12886-2)

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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