The Last Graduate, Naomi Novik (Del Rey 978-0-593-12886-2, $28.00, 400pp, hc) September 2021.
Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education introduced us to the Scholomance, a magical high school for wizards that kills the better part of each incoming class by the time they are seniors. The school is not driven by pure malice (although it does seem to take a certain glee in making its students miserable) but by hope. These wizard teenagers would fare far worse in the outside world, what with the packs of mals who want to eat them. As the main character El says, the Scholomance is “a casino, meant to tilt the odds in our favor.”
What happens, though, when two wizards are born in the same year whose combined powers could significantly change the situation in the outside world for wizard children? That is what the second book in the Scholomance trilogy, The Last Graduate, aims to find out.
The Last Graduate is really not the book to start with, should an unsuspecting reader pick it up by accident. For this book to make sense, you need to know how brutal the school is, especially when you are a young wizard with no alliances and a lot working against you, like our protagonist El. In A Deadly Education, El finds her place in the school’s social ecosystem and, with student and love-interest (sorta) Orion Lake, does very big things to save her classmates by the time that first book closes.
In The Last Graduate, the school itself seems to be trying to even the score by placing El in a punishing string of classes while charging her with keeping a few first-year students alive. In the outside world, the global politics of the wizard world are undergoing seismic shifts, which those inside can do nothing about if they don’t survive graduation. If El and her alliance can’t figure out how to get through their last year and out of the doors, it won’t matter anyway.
While there are moments where Novik bogs down a bit in the nuts-and-bolts of how the Scholomance works and details about the many mals who can kill, the story is one that rips along like a force of nature. In the abstract, this is a story about relying on others – but in the concrete, it is about how to survive when the odds are against you. As she did with the first book, Novik changes the game again with the very last line.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
This review and more like it in the October 2021 issue of Locus.
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