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: Uprooted

‘Uprooted’ is heavily inspired by Central European fairytales and could loosely be classified as a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ retelling. It’s a slow burner, but gradually weaves a captivating and beautiful story.

Agnieszka loves the quiet Polish village she’s grown up in – but all the villagers live in fear of the neighbouring Dark Wood and the malevolent powers within. Their only defence from the wood is the Dragon – a cold, mysterious wizard who lives in a nearby tower. For his protection, the Dragon demands a price – every ten years, he selects a young woman from the village to spend the next decade serving him. He always chooses the most beautiful villager. Agniezska was born in a tribute year, but she’s sure her best friend Kezia – beautiful, polite, perfect – will be the one chosen. However, to everyone’s surprise, the Dragon selects Agnieszka instead – and now Agnieszka faces ten years with the Dragon, a fate considered worse than being abandoned to the Dark Wood itself.

Agnieszka is exactly the sort of heroine you want to root for. She resents her circumstances and is far from the polished lady of the tower – she’s clumsy, with no eye for fashion or beauty – but she’s loyal to a fault, filled with determination and sure of herself. Everything about her is highly relatable, and she manages to be strong without seeming two-dimensional. In contrast, the Dragon remains mysterious throughout – little tidbits of his past and character are revealed in places, but he’s very much kept shrouded, with Agnieszka the focus of the story. His interpretation is left to the reader’s discretion – a bold move, but one which works well here without seeming like a cop-out.

One of the biggest strengths of ‘Uprooted’ is the magic system. It takes some time for this to be revealed, but the novel becomes far more engaging and enjoyable once its role begins. It’s a simple system, but it fits the fairytale theme and its fun to learn about it at the same time as the protagonist. I do wish that the magical philosophies were explored in greater detail – as a standalone, there’s less room for in-depth examinations of magical lore, and that’s one of my favourite parts of fantasy novels – but what’s revealed works well.

The other major strength is Naomi Novik’s writing – she absolutely nails the fairytale style and gorgeously paints a picture of the Dark Wood and the mysterious Dragon in his tower.

There are minor flaws – the initial pacing is slow and almost drags, and Kesia, Agnieszka’s best friend, is left as a two-dimensional character when she could have been so much more – but, while these detract a little, they still leave a vastly enjoyable novel packed with many positives.

Overall, ‘Uprooted’ is an excellent addition to the fairytale genre, set in a part of the world less often seen in Western fantasy novels. Recommended to fans of fairytales, strong heroines, and beautiful prose.

Published by Pan Macmillan
Hardback: May 21st 2015

Robyn Reviews: A Deadly Education

a deadly ed

Some books are objectively well written – neatly structured, with clever turns of phrase – but fail to tell enjoyable stories. Others are objectively poor – full of info-dumping, lacking a coherent plot, without a single likeable character, or all three – yet despite this, are so brilliant to read it doesn’t matter. ‘A Deadly Education’ is the latter. It’s a mess of a book, told in a first-person stream of consciousness style that goes on page-long tangents about entirely irrelevant points then abruptly jumping back to the original point that you’d forgotten was being made, but it’s such a fun book that it doesn’t matter. I regularly found myself laughing out loud reading it. This has been talked about as a fantasy dark academia, but the vibes I was getting from it were more Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth. Gideon and Novik’s protagonist, El, would outwardly hate each other but secretly get along like a house on fire, setting not just the house but the entire village on fire in the process.

‘A Deadly Education’ follows El, short for Galadriel, a sophomore student at the Scholomance – a school for those born with magic. However, it’s not like any other school. There are no teachers – in fact, there are no staff members at all. There are lessons, but the content is unpredictable and may or may not be helpful. There’s only one rule – survive – deceptively difficult when monsters stroll the halls. Thousands of students enter, but only a few hundred will leave.

“They don’t have any reason to care about us. We’re not their children. We’re the other gazelles, all of us trying to outrun the same pack of lions. And if we happen to be faster than their children, more powerful, their children will get eaten… You can’t blame people for wanting their own kids to live.”

El is a loner – her mother is a hippy at a commune in Wales, not a member of an Enclave which might have brought her daughter allies. In a school where alliances with other students are key to survival, this should have been a death sentence – except that El possesses dark magic strong enough to level mountains. Too bad that using that magic would kill everyone else in the school – and that no-one believes she has it. When her life is saved by the school’s resident hero – Orion, the son of the head of the New York Enclave, one of the most powerful witches in the world – El’s initial reaction is anger. How dare he think her incapable of protecting herself? When Orion continues to stick around like an old piece of chewing gum stuck to her shoe, the entire balance of power keeping the school in check shifts – with potentially devastating consequences.

El is the single best part of this book. She’s a perpetually angry, grumpy mess, but has a heart of gold – fortunate in someone with enough power to kill all those around her. Everything she says and thinks is completely deadpan but regularly hilarious – her interactions with Orion are frequently comedy gold. She’s also incredibly smart and insightful in the way she sees the world. At first, it’s easy to feel annoyed at her for her constant anger at others, but as the book unfolds it becomes easier to see why she acts in the way she does. Her character development is excellent – when she finally starts to let others in it’s one of the best moments of the book.

“You know that feeling when you’re a mile away from anywhere, and you didn’t take your umbrella because it was sunny when you left, and you’re in your good suede boots, and suddenly it gets dark and you can tell it’s about to start pouring buckets? That’s what it feels like, when you show up.”

Orion is absolutely adorable. The saviour of the school, Orion has an entire Enclave’s worth of power at his back and a unique ability to kill Mals (monsters) and steal their power. His efforts mean there are more surviving students at the Scholomance than ever before -but they’ve also made the magic of the school very angry, and the Mals very hungry. Orion has always been hero-worshipped for his ability, so he has no idea what to do when El acts like her charming self with him. At first, his presence is hard to understand and he seems like a two-dimensional hero, but once again Novik brilliantly adds depth to his character as the story unfolds, painting a picture of a boy who just wants to be liked for who he is, rather than what he can do. Orion is also, for a conquering hero, the single naivest character in the world, and El’s continuing exasperation at his obliviousness is comedy gold.

The supporting characters are equally excellent. There’s Liu, who resorts to sacrificing animals to obtain power; Chloe, the spoilt rich girl from the New York Enclave who El can’t stand; Aadhya, the pragmatic trader and one of the few in the school to tolerate El’s presence; Magnus, the entitled prat who wants El dead for the crime of daring to talk to Orion. Even these characters grow and develop throughout the book, with Novik managing to flip opinions of them as events unfold. She has a true gift for writing exceptional characters.

In many ways, the plot is simple – it has to be, to fit in around the winding tangents and info-dumps – but this matters less because of the intriguing setting and characters. It’s still tense, clever, and the ending is such an exceptional cliffhanger I’m both in awe and angry. Novik manages the rare skill of both making this stand alone as a full book and leaving a cliffhanger so good you need the next book immediately. She’d better not give us years to wait or I’ll be tearing my hair out at the suspense.

Overall, this is an info-dumpy mess that somehow still manages to be an exceptional book. Novik has dared to write a book that many people will hate but others will love for the sheer brilliance of the setting and characters. Recommended for those who like character-driven fantasy, intriguing settings, and grizzly, unlikeable characters who you end up loving anyway.

 

Published by Cornerstone Books
Hardback: 29th September 2020