Robyn Reviews: The Last Graduate

‘The Last Graduate’ is the much anticipated sequel to ‘A Deadly Education‘, Naomi Novik’s foray into fantasy dark academia. Like its predecessor, it’s a stream-of-consciousness style novel packed full of El’s righteous anger, dry humour, and general over-dramatisation – but this is also a more mature novel, showing off more of the Scholomance and its place in the world, and allowing El a great deal of personal growth. It’s a compelling read throughout, gradually picking up pace and ending on a cliffhanger that demands the next book immediately. Overall, it’s an exceptional addition to the Scholomance series and sets things up tantalisingly for a grand finale.

El, Orion, and their classmates are now seniors, with just a single year to prepare for the horrors of graduation. However, El finally has something she never expected to have – a graduation alliance – which means she might just survive after all. First, she has to navigate the daily perils of life in the Scholomance – less dangerous than they used to be, but still ever-present – the complexity of actually having friends, and of course her mother’s warning. But with her death less imminently on the horizon, El starts to allow herself to dream – and those dreams might be even more perilous than anything that has come before.

El remains a sarcastic, prickly character with no tolerance for anyone else’s ineptitude, but she’s starting to become more self aware – she’s realised that, on the inside, she’s actually a nice person, and she has no idea what to do about that. All her life she’s been told she’s an immeasurable evil. The perspective shift is fascinating – and El struggles with keeping up a tough face and accepting that she’s actually a marshmallow. She also has no idea how to interact with people – other than her mum, it’s not something she’s really had to do before – so watching her try to figure out her friendship with Aadhya, Liu, and Chloe, and her maybe-something-more with Orion is brilliant.

As the entire book is told from El’s head, the perspective on the other characters is limited, but Aadhya, Liu, Chloe, and Orion are still given room and space for growth. Orion especially is fleshed out a lot more in ‘The Last Graduate’, going from the hero who always wants to save the day to a far more insecure figure. El, with her potential for mass destruction, initially seems like the morally grey one – but the more that’s revealed about Orion, the more it becomes clear that it’s a lot more complicated. I love the way Novik flips hero and villain tropes on their head and continually obscures any clear morality.

One of my favourite characters in ‘The Last Graduate’ is the Scholomance itself, which develops hugely from ‘A Deadly Education’. There, it is simply an unusual and eccentric school packed with monsters. In the sequel it becomes a character in its own right with elements of personality and almost a sense of humour. Anthropomorphic settings are one of my favourite fantasy tropes and Novik executes it well, allowing it to develop slowly – especially because El, for someone with great powers of observation and deduction, can sometimes be surprisingly oblivious to anything happening outside of her own head.

The plot starts slowly, focusing on El’s battle with herself, but the action ramps up in the second half. I actually enjoyed both sections equally – El’s internal turmoil is brilliantly written, and the action scenes and desperation in the second half are equally engaging – but I can see how some readers would find the first half more difficult going. Those who struggled with the more tangential sections in ‘A Deadly Education’ might find this takes a while to get into, but it’s worth it for the finale.

The weakest bit, for me, is the romance – but my quibbles are very minor. For a book that takes place inside El’s head, it can be very hard to see what she actually thinks of Orion – but then, El spends a lot of time trying to hide her own feelings from herself, especially any that she finds inconvenient, so it’s easy to see why. Their interactions remain frequently hilarious, and Orion around El is exceptionally sweet. It’s not a particularly healthy relationship, but El clearly acknowledges this – as do those around her, who regularly hold her accountable for her occasional unthinking selfishness.

Overall, ‘The Last Graduate’ enhances the world established in ‘A Deadly Education’, taking the excellent characters and ideas and elevating them to new heights. It’s an excellent sequel, and one that lays the groundwork for a formidable finale. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Thanks to Del Rey for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 28th September 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Nature of Witches

‘The Nature of Witches’ is an atmospheric contemporary fantasy novel that explores the burden of the ‘chosen one’ trope. Written for a YA fantasy audience, it has equal crossover appeal to readers of character-driven adult fantasy, like ‘The Once and Future Witches‘ or ‘The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue‘. The writing is beautiful, changing slightly in tone with each season and leaving an impact long beyond the final page. It isn’t perfect – it’s a debut, with some rough edges to be expected – but it’s a brilliant book.

For centuries, witches have been responsible for maintaining the Earth’s climate. However, with human-induced climate change, the climate is becoming too erratic for them to control. Their only hope lies with Clara – the first Everwitch born in a century. But Clara hates her magic – it’s dangerous, and she’s lost too many people she loves already. While everyone else tries to drive Clara to push her abilities and fight for the future of the Earth, Clara sees her only hope in stripping herself of her magic so she isn’t cursed to spend forever alone.

The book is set over a year of Clara’s life training at a school for witches. It’s split into sections based on seasons. Most witches have the power of only one season, the season of their birth – but Clara, the Everwitch, has the power of all four seasons, changing as the season turns. The price of this is that she changes to, her desires and personality as changeable as the weather. Griffin makes this work beautifully. In autumn, Clara is in flux – swinging from hope to despair, indifference to rage. In winter, Clara is more stoic, steadfast, confident in making decisions and blunt in her conclusions. This section is one of my favourites, with some of the best writing in the entire book. In spring, Clara grows and changes – passion rises, along with her power, but also a storm of worries that threatens to undo her. In summer, that tumult of emotion spikes, and all Clara’s plans are thrown into chaos.

Clara makes a brilliant protagonist – one who feels completely like a teenager with the weight of the word on her shoulders. She’s self-centred and brooding, bottling everything up until it threatens to explode. She blames herself for everything and convinces herself that far from being the Earth’s salvation, she’s defective – something that needs to be removed. But while all that self-pity can be difficult to read, it comes from a good place. Clara has a huge heart, and while all her decisions are short-sighted in the way the choices of teenagers often are, her intentions are good. Clara doesn’t just think she’s special – she knows she is, and that knowledge is immensely difficult for her to handle. The emotional immaturity, rash decision making, and insistence on solitude rather than confiding in anyone else feel authentically like the choices a teenager would make in her situation.

The counterpoints to Clara’s emotional storm are Sang and Paige. Sang, a Spring witch brought to the school to train Clara, is sunshine in human form. He has all the best attributes of spring – a constant sense of happiness and cheerfulness, a love for family, and a keen interest in life and growth. Sang forces Clara out of her brooding state and brings contentment to her life that she didn’t think was possible. Of course, spring isn’t only about the sunny days, and Sang has his clouds too. He needs human connection, and when Clara withdraws into her shell, he struggles. But Sang has the patience of spring too, and he’ll always wait for the clouds to pass over.

Paige, in contrast, is all sharp angles and biting retorts. She has the hardness of winter – the strength required to stay strong in the harshest of seasons, and a contempt for weakness in others. Paige sees Clara’s selfishness and it brings rage. But winter isn’t only cold and anger. Like Sang, Paige cares deeply about Clara, it just manifests in different ways. Where Sang uses smiles and emotional heart-to-hearts, Paige argues and insults – anything to bring Clara out of her shell. Anything to show the world that its strong enough to survive. It takes time to come to like Paige, but as time goes on she becomes a refreshing cool breeze on a warm day.

The worldbuilding is simple but effective. The story is set in a parallel version of America, but one that is aware of witches. In this America, witches are seen as the cure to everything – humanity doesn’t need to worry about endless growth and climate destruction because the witches are there to fix it. The shaders – non-witches – aren’t malicious, they’re simply ignorant of the impact their climate destruction is causing. The magic system is equally simple – magic comes only to those born on a solstice or equinox, with the magic specific to the season of birth and strongest during that season.

This is a quiet novel. The biggest villain for Clara to fight is herself – her own thoughts and worries. There’s no grand exposition about how and why magic works – it’s just there. This is a novel about climate change, but its just as much about human psychology and coming to terms with power. Those looking for action, or heroes and villains, or complex fantasy elements won’t find them here. But for those who like their stories character driven with complex, messy characters, this is an excellent choice.

Published by Sourcebooks Fire
Hardback: 1st June 2021

Robyn Reviews: Wendy, Darling

‘Wendy, Darling’ is a feminist exploration of the aftermath of JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan‘. It’s a dark tale, looking at the price of growing up, what is means to be a parent, and how society treats those who don’t conform. It also explores some of the issues within the original ‘Peter Pan’ seen through a modern lens, especially around the role of women and racism towards indigenous peoples. The flow isn’t always there, but for those who enjoy a darker story it’s a worthwhile read.

Neverland is a children’s paradise, perfect for the boy who never grows up. Wendy, on the other hand, has given up Neverland, and finds growing up inevitable. By the time Peter returns for her, Wendy has married and had a daughter of her own – but Peter refuses to believe that the adult woman is Wendy. Instead, he steals her daughter Jane. Desperate to get her daughter back, Wendy sets off for Neverland once more. In returning, Wendy must confront some painful truths about Neverland – and about herself. There’s a darkness in the heart of the island, and for all his charisma, there’s darkness in Peter too.

The story is told from two perspectives – Jane’s and Wendy’s – and across two timelines. There’s the present, with Jane and Wendy in Neverland, but also flashbacks to Wendy’s life in the years after leaving Neverland the first time and the impact that had. In many ways, the flashback scenes are the more compelling. Neverland completely upended the trajectory of Wendy’s life, and the lasting struggles it left her with are stark. Her brothers quickly forgot Neverland, but Wendy never did – and in her desperation to hold on, she managed to alienate herself from everyone around her. The loneliness of being the only one to remember something, and the way it makes them doubt their own mind, is brilliantly – if somewhat horrifically – portrayed. At one point, Wendy even ends up instituitonalised – this being the early 20th century, where women who did not conform were shut away – and the brutality of this is again not shied away from.

Wendy is by far the more interesting character. Enormously complex, she struggles with her identity and her feelings on Neverland. She’s gone from being forced to be a mother to the Lost Boys to choosing to be a mother herself – and then that child is torn away from her too. With the trauma of her life after leaving Neverland, her memories of it have become her comfort and shield against the world – so when Neverland itself becomes a source of trauma, she struggles to know where to turn. Wendy is flawed and struggling, but immensely strong, and she loves her daughter fiercely. Its impossible not to empathise with her. Her relationships with Mary and with her husband Ned are also delightful to read about. While the term is never used on page, Wendy reads as aromantic, possibly with an element of bisexuality. AC Wise does well to foreshadow this before Wendy mentions it on page, and its lovely to see her find happiness and companionship in a time less accepting of those identities.

Jane is a very typical child protagonist. Smart and plucky, she wants to be a scientist and fiercely stands up for herself. Unlike Wendy, who in the original ‘Peter Pan’ mostly went along with Peter and his ideas – only rebelling by leaving at the end – Jane fights from the start. She has no interest in being anyone’s mother, and she’d much rather look at rocks than spend all day play-fighting. Her rebellion makes Peter more malevolent, highlighting the darker side that was present in the original but far mote subtle. Jane’s sections are made more readable by the inclusion of Timothy, one of the Lost Boys who has grown tired of Peter’s games – and scared of Peter as a consequence. Jane is kind-hearted and caring, and her interactions with Timothy are lovely. Unlike Wendy, Jane doesn’t stand out as a character – she reads much like a wide variety of children’s book protagonists – but she makes an interesting counterpoint to her more complex mother.

The ending is powerful, with clear messages about motherhood and what it means to grow up. There are a couple of minor irritations – Jane’s characterisation slips a bit at the climax, becoming a little too subserviant – but overall it works well.

The main issue with ‘Wendy, Darling’ is that it takes a risk by telling two simultaneous stories, and one is so much more gripping and complex that it makes the other seem a little weak. The flashback scenes are probably intended to be a minor part, but to me their story is more compelling than the main plotline. I would happily read an entire book just dedicated to the psychological impact of Neverland on Wendy and her life, and how she navigates the aftermath. This definitely says more about me as a reader than it does the book, but it colours my ability to look at it objectively.

Overall, ‘Wendy, Darling’ is a clever look at the story of ‘Peter Pan’ and what might have happened next. Unlike the original, it’s definitely not a children’s book, but it’s an intriguing addition to the world of ‘Peter Pan’ spinoffs. Recommended for existing ‘Peter Pan’ fans, along with those who enjoy tales about motherhood, women who survive, and psychology.

Thanks to NetGalley and Titan Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 1st June 2021