This is the second book in the Scholomance trilogy: the first, A Deadly Education, told El’s story in the last three weeks of her junior year at the school of magic, the Scholomance, and how her efforts and those of her friends have, she hopes, helped most of the seniors graduate without significant casualties. This second book covers El’s senior year, starting off with what El considers the worst possible assignment: her study hall as the sole senior in a classroom of young, inexperienced freshmen. Unlike the first novel, Novik skips over big chunks of time, since The Last Graduate covers the whole year. El (short for Galadriel) isn’t much interested in giving us details of her lessons, but she does show how she and her friends are increasingly changing the ethos of the school – how it’s no longer every kid for themself, but one in which cooperation and mutual assistance isn’t confined to a small alliance but almost the whole class – aided, it seems, by the school itself.
We see El becoming closer friends with Liu and Aadhya, bonding with her familiar (a delightful mouse called Precious), coming to feel responsibility for younger kids, and developing her friendship and romantic relationship with Orion. It’s great that El can inspire others, and I did like how Novik made this realistic and not too easy, with other pupils by turns sceptical, enthusiastic, selfish, paranoid, or impractical. The world-building is satisfyingly detailed, and El tells us more about the external politics between enclaves and the power struggles between them, as well as going into more detail about how enclaves protect their inhabitants and ensure their own survival over independent wizards.
I really liked the way Novik showed us more of the school pupils this time (although there are loads, and some are necessarily reduced simply to names and affiliations), and how El recognises other’s strengths, such as Liesel’s, in people she doesn’t always like very much. I also really enjoyed her relationship with Orion, and how, it’s El who very much initiates how it goes. But also, one can quite see why El’s mother would warn her daughter to keep far away from Orion Lake.
If you’re wondering which of these two options I picked, then you must not know me, as pain and dismay were obviously my destination. I didn’t even need to think about it.
It’s difficult to talk about this book without going into spoiler territory, mainly because of the ending, although its almost literal cliff-hanger nature means that I have of course pre-ordered the third book (which comes out in September this year) to see how Novik gets herself out of such a massive narrative hole. Yet, the more I think about it, it doesn’t seem so much of a shock.