The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Looking back on my review of the first book in the series, A Deadly Education, I thought I knew what a holy shit ending was...until I read this book.
It was almost enough to make me throw the book against the wall, not so much out of anger (though there was a little of that too, as in "WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK!") or frustration as....resignation. Because once I thought about it, I realized the book couldn't have ended any other way. Trying to be as non-spoilery as possible, the final chapters took a deeper dive into the character of Orion Lake than we'd ever gotten before, revealing why he acted the way he did and why he didn't mind being at this terrible prison of a wizard boarding school. In the final pages, when the protagonist Galadriel is working a spell to free the thousands of kids in the Scholomance, by luring in all the malefica/demons that would have otherwise eaten them on the outside, we see Orion as he was truly meant to be:
And now that he finally had it, I thought I might understand better what he'd told me, because it was all so effortless for him. He wasn't locked in a grim, desperate struggle for his life, counting every drop of mana like a tumbling grain of sand in an hourglass. His every movement, each graceful killing sweep of his sword-whip, every spell he cast, every effort he put forth, they all fed him back, and you couldn't help but feel, watching it, that he was doing what he was meant for--something so perfectly aligned with his nature that it was as easy as breathing.
And that's why, in the final paragraphs, he does what he does.
There's a similar peeling back of the layers of the rude, prickly onion that is our protagonist and narrator, Galadriel "El" Higgins, as she slowly learns to trust other people, to open up, to have friends and care about others. To realize that the entire system of the Scholomance, the extradimensional boarding school set up by the wizarding enclaves of the world over a hundred years ago to save their children from slaughter, is nevertheless wrong, and look for a way to dismantle it. To figure out how to save every last one of the kids in the school, and maybe destroy most of the malefica in the world along with it. She is an extremely conflicted and reluctant hero, but once she decides to do this, she sees it through to the end.
The only reason I'm not rating this five stars instead of four is the writing style. Due to the complexity of the worldbuilding, this is not a streamlined, breezy kind of book. There isn't very much dialogue--Orion and El do more actual talking in the chapter where they finally hook up than the entirety of the first book and most of this one put together--and to be blunt, each page is full of big whopping paragraphs and long complicated sentences. I'm sure that will be offputting to some. You need a lot of patience to read this series, and it's understandable that some people won't have that. But I think the depths of El's character, her gradually unfolding relationships and her amazement that people really care for her and she cares for them, makes up for the slow deliberate pace.
And that ending! I still don't like it, but I can see the necessity of it. But the final book, whenever it comes out, had better deliver the goods, to be worthy of it.
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