So About The Last Graduate . . .

I just finished Naomi Novik’s sequel to A Deadly Education, and I have thoughts, but they are not organized. So in no particular order, just off the top of my head as I close the book . . .


This is not a book that can be read without reading the first one first. I’m not sure I’m going to understand it all without reading it again.

It’s not as focused as the first one, and it’s not as compelling. I’m thinking that’s because it’s a second act, and middles are always squooshier than beginnings (world building and set-up) and endings (big finish and closure).

She still didn’t pay off the mysterious ending to the first book, which is annoying unless this is actually just one really long three-act book that she hasn’t finished yet, which think is what it is. That is, unlike Rivers of London or the Allingham mysteries or most of the other series I’ve been reading, none of these books are stand-clones (alone if the first one didn’t have the last line, it would have been).

The characters are so well drawn here, that it’s worth it wading through all the mythology to get to them. I could have done with less political background and more character in action, but the characters still carry it.

I love the mice.

El’s arc isn’t nearly as satisfying as in the last book, but it’s hard to top outcast-to-power-player; at this point all she has is power-player-to-mega-power-player. Orion is already a cross between Hercules and Thor, so I’m assuming El becomes a goddess in the next one.

what are the odds that El’s seer-Mom warned her about Orion because he’s knocked her up the night before he shoves her out the door to save her the same way her dad shoved her mother out the door?

I do not believe Orion Lake is dead. I am wondering if when El shoved him and the school into outer darkness, he doesn’t come back evil. Mostly I’m annoyed that he stayed behind to die fighting the whatsis. Too much like Jack drowning instead of climbing up on the door (there was room on that door, damn it).

I’m still a little fuzzy on how El managed to get all the male in the world into the school. And if she was going to obliterate the school anyway, why did Orion have to stay behind to kill the whatsis?

And what about Great-Great-Grandma’s prophecy? And why is Orion such a monomaniac about killing monsters? And what’s with Mom’s warning about him? Too many prophecy/mystery things banging around in the plot at the point.

If I were rating these books, I’d give A Deadly Education an A+ and The Last Graduate a B. The second book is well worth reading, but it has that mess in the middle feeling and no closure. Maybe I just need to read the second one again. Novik’s work is so layered and complex and detailed that I can’t get it all in one read.

So those of you who read it, what did you think of The Last Graduate?

24 thoughts on “So About The Last Graduate . . .

  1. Oh, you should read it again. And maybe another time after that. I finished it last week and felt roughly the same, which is to say vaguely disappointed and feeling like a good editor could have helped her tighten up a lot of rambling and wasted words, but still willing to buy the next book the moment it’s announced. But then I reread it and felt better about it, and then I reread it again and felt a lot better about it, and then I reread the first one, followed by the second, and felt much better about it. Although, ugh, that cliff-hanger. I don’t believe he’s dead, I’m not sure I even believe she let herself get shoved out the door, although I do think the first is more likely than the latter.

    Rereading, I think, helped me clarify a character arc that wasn’t obvious to me the first time. In the first book, she went from outcast to power player, but she also went from being alone to having community. The heroine’s journey, as per that great book from Gail Carringer. In this one, she went from having people to being forced to ask her people for help. I think on my first read I just zoomed past that, but on the second it struck me.

    And that feels like really classic heroine’s journey material — not just having community, but also needing to rely on your community, needing them to step up to the plate for you, and needing to let yourself be vulnerable enough to ask them to do so. And sure, they’re stepping up to the plate because their own self-interest is at stake, but it’s not irrelevant that Cora is the one who breaks the silence at the end. Cora! It would have been such a different scene if it had been an enclaver and it could have so easily have been a random no-name kid. I even love the words she used, “I’m still in.” No power behind that, no attempt to manipulate, no authority, just a powerless kid who’s already seen her own death and is willing to face it again. Also an excellent example of how good Novik is at subtly building secondary characters, because Cora is almost just one of the faceless crowd. But only almost.

    As for El’s mother’s warning, I think we got the only answer we’ll ever get when El said that the most likely option was that her mom just had a bad feeling. A really bad feeling, obviously, given what she did in response, but we have no reason to believe that El’s mom can foresee the future, so what else could it have been? Maybe Grandma got in touch? I theorize that the enclaves rely on mana from mals to function and that their move of pulling all the mals in the world into the school and sending them back to the void is going to cause the enclaves to collapse, because I’m pretty sure that one way or another the prediction that El’s going to destroy the enclaves is coming true. But it’s going to be fun to see! And such a long wait, sigh.

    Back to specific questions — I’m not taking the bet on the warning being about El getting pregnant. I don’t think the odds are great at all, I’d be more willing to bet that El’s mom would be just fine with being a grandma. Not something she would have been worried about enough to send a warning, anyway.

    On the ending, El (and presumably Orion) were worried that the maw-mouth would escape before the school disintegrated and fell into the void. The crack in the dais — the evidence that the school was breaking — was moving more slowly than the doors were closing, so Orion stayed behind to prevent the ultimate monster from escaping into the world where it could go on killing people. Now, why he had to stay behind to do that when surely he could have worked on killing the monster out in the world if it escaped? That’s, I think, a symptom of Orion’s addiction. He loves killing monsters. It’s what he lives for. This is the ultimate monster, the worst monster that ever has been or will be, and he has a chance to fight it. He can’t pass that up. If El is on the heroine’s journey, building community and becoming vulnerable, Orion is still stuck on the hero’s journey. Actually, there could be a great compare and contrast paper there, because it strikes me that Orion is a remarkably passive participant though all of the planning.

    If I was rating these books, I’d give A Deadly Education an A, because even though I loved it, I did finish it wanting to poke holes in it. (For one thing, how can El possibly know all the things she knows? She pontificates on how the school works, but she has supposedly grown up isolated from other wizard kids. Are we supposed to believe that her mother has spent years training her to survive Scholomance? The same mother of endless peace and light? Where would El have done her research? And since no one likes her or talks to her, how could she have learned it all after getting to the school?) After multiple rereads, I’d give The Last Graduate an A, too. Not because I think it’s as good as the first book, but because it’s still good enough that all I wanted to do after I finished was start re-reading. In fact, maybe… but no, today is going to involve some work, not just rereading!

    1. That’s really well expressed. That El character arc is exactly what let me enjoy the book so much — her reluctance to be a numpty, her fury at realising she’d always been one and was going to be one. The size of the ambition she let herself have.

    2. I agree with most of your analysis, Sarah. WRT El’s knowing stuff, she spends a lot of time in the library studying what’s necessary to survive. Also, isn’t there mention of a school manual or manuals around somewhere? So I can buy her knowing it.

      Also, if El has the opportunity to rid the world of all mals but that means they take all the magic in the world with them, that would be a good way to “destroy” the world of magic and of the enclaves. And maybe this is what g-grand foresaw?

      Jenny, I also liked your analysis and I agree this suffers from middle book syndrome a bit. Part of this is that El and her world are no longer a surprise and, as you mentioned, Jenny, the curve of El’s character arc is not as pronounced as in the first book.

      I think the single biggest issue I had with the book is Orion. He was three-dimensional in the first book and only two-dimensional in this book. Like you said, Sarah. I kept wondering why El still liked him because he was being such a big putz. Novik explained why towards the end but I felt she left it a bit too little too late. I would have had El metaphorically slap Orion upside the head earlier in the book and ask him why he was behaving this way.

      But I still enjoyed the book very much and will be rereading it again in a few days. I think I fall in between you and Sarah when grading it!

  2. As soon as I read the last sentence, I went to Naomi Novik’s website to make sure that another book was forthcoming. The Last Graduate was not precisely a cliff hanger as far as the story was concerned – they got out of the school, but it certainly left things up in the air where El and Orion were concerned.

    Orion has a drug problem. He harvests mana from the mals which is how he gets mana. He cannot be trusted to draw on stored mana because he will take it all, that is why his dad made him a one way power-sharer. Other students harvest mana by working or enduring pain and they store it to perform magic.

    It is interesting that both El and Orion have the capability of destroying their world: El through her magic and Orion through consumption of mana. The difference is that El has learned to control herself and use her magic for good outcomes and Orion is just starting to learn control (when El wants him to draw mana from her, he doesn’t want to because he is not sure he can control himself).

  3. I devoured The Last Graduate and then jumped right back in to reread it. (Then I went back and reread A Deadly Education for the 10th or 20th time).

    It wasn’t until my second reading that I realized the ending was ambiguous, possibly not the HEA I surmised the first time. Orion shoved El out with a declaration of love and then it ended. Oops, maybe not really ambiguous after all.

    The characters and world-building are so good in both books, that I really don’t want to speculate what happens next. When the next book appears, I want to dive in and live it fresh, immersed in that world, with no expectations other than it will be good. And if it’s like book 2, the third will start immediately after the shove.

    I initially read TLG expecting the larger-than-life quality of the first book. But it’s quieter, giving a chance to catch one’s breath, which El has the chance to do because she has built a community, as Sarah points out.

    El’s character arc inexorably continues the same path already laid out: to NOT be the “smart girl” which would be joining an enclave for an instant community. Instead she builds her own according to her standards, and she’s also figured out what she does want to do after school: to build small enclaves around the world, and in the process make the world safer for everyone. She’s actually come round to doing what her mother would approve of.

    Her arc has a counterpoint in Liu’s. She’s been raised to be the “smart girl,” to do whatever is needed to promote her family. And instead at the end decides she must be true to herself. I love that she’s the one who comes up with the mal idea.

    And the Scholomance itself has a character arc.

    A peripheral point: I enjoy the opportunity to have to look up so many words and phrases, most of which can be understood by context. (The only words I couldn’t were the two in Arabic in the first book.) But it’s rare that fiction increases vocabulary, other than made-up words for science fiction or fantasy. One delicious example is in chapter 3 of A Deadly Education. Orion uses a spell that El mocks. “C’est temps dissoudre par coup de foudre” which Google translates as “It’s time to dissolve by love at first sight.” Hmmm, foreshadowing?

  4. I was disappointed. But I also loved the mice.

    It felt like the story took too long to get going, and there was less story there—definitely less journey.

    My take on El the destroyer is that without mals in the world they won’t need their exclusive communities, and also she’s going to build all those tiny golden communities and perhaps people won’t need huge powerful places. And they would have more freedom?

    Why can’t I remember the name of the communities? I’m old.

    Orion kind of felt like a big jerk a lot of the time. I stopped liking him even though we learned why he was being a big jerk. He needs to kill things to live. And I think he stayed to kill the moremouth because he couldn’t help himself – and maybe because that much energy would set him up for life.

    And did El ever speak the last word of the spell that would sever the school from the earth? Because I don’t think she did. Unless that’s what she does at the beginning of the third book?

    Orion is not dead in my opinion. And if El doesn’t finish casting that spell he has a way to get back. Or maybe the next book is El rescuing Orion.

    At the moment I have no interest in listening again, but I assume in a month or two I will relisten to both books and maybe get a different feeling about it.

    BTW – I hate cliffhangers unless the next book is available to read right now.

  5. Are all of the mals destroyed by the destruction of the Scholomance? I assumed it was a situation like fixing the equipment: most of the mals are polished off but some will escape and sooner or later the larvae will hatch and more mals will come back into the world.

    1. They are definitely not all dead. The odds of survival outside go up to 1 in 2 according to Liesl, which means there ought to be plenty left to spawn more eventually. Of course at the end El changes the spell from a summoning to a command so maybe it’s setting up to be all of them but that’s definitely not what they think is going to happen.

      1. Destroying the Scholomance seems like an expensive and temporary solution to the problem. I think the next book (or at least the last book) is going to have to come up with a better and more permanent solution.

  6. I found The Last Graduate a really tiring read, didn’t like the writing style at all. How come El knows all this stuff? Has she maybe got some stuff wrong?

    I also got a tickle that maybe her dad wasn’t dead. Perhaps there’s another world where some students ended up.

    1. The price you pay for writing in the first person is that your readers know your narrator will survive, right? — absent some kind of ridiculous “I’m telling you this from the afterlife” twist. The corollary is that El knows all this stuff because she’s telling us the story well after it happened.

    2. I too have been thinking that dad is going to feature in somehow. Even if it’s just having El or Orion kill the mal that is digesting dad for eternity. But I’m hoping for an even better resolution, like rescuing dad and bringing him home to mom. Not expecting it, but still hoping…

  7. Still digesting. On a completely unrelated note, don’t get me started on that stupid Titanic ending, ugggghhhh! (Grinds teeth)

    1. I wonder if “How It Should Have Ended” (HISHE) would be willing to take on novels as well as movies. They should. They totally should.

  8. I think the Golden Sutra book El’s been carrying around has to play into the prophecy that she’ll destroy all the enclaves.

    I trust Novik to give us a HEA after book three.

    I think the pacing was of necessity a little slower in book two because it takes place over an entire school year, whereas book one was (I think) about a month total, maybe less.

  9. Ata mārie & good morning from a very foggy Wellington, New Zealand, where we have just (more or less) admitted we can’t get rid of delta, so we’re going to have to vaccinate our way out of it; which would be fine, if deeply embedded inequalities & an inglorious history in which our government was happy to use European viruses as de facto colonisation tools didn’t make getting some of our communities to trust the government and get vaccinated very, very challenging. I mention this partly because it’s very top of mind, but also because the way Naomi Novik makes El slowly realise she needs to save *everyone* in order to be able to live with herself was just deeply what I wanted to read, this last week. I think that’s part of why I had such a good experience of this book — I’m pretty much on the top of grade curve, I’d rate it even higher than A Deadly Education, which was my favourite book of 2020.

    I do see where all the exposition could be an issue for people. Part of what wows me about El’s voice is that I don’t actually experience her “but before I tell you how I dealt with this particular monster I shall just explain a few things for three pages” digressions as irritants. Can’t think of any other narrator since Heinlein’s whose explanations have felt so organic. I think a lot of it is that she’s just so irritated with everything. I can’t get enough of her particular brand of sarcasm.

    Let’s see, what else. I was completely & instantly satisfied by her response to her mother’s prophecy. “I see you mean well and that’s so lovely and I am going to ignore this” pleased me SO much more than the chapters of angst I was expecting. Most books would have deployed that prophecy as a romantic obstacle and then made a big deal of her finally getting over it; Novik gets that out of the way in the first three pages. I am really quite worried about the prophecy though, because El makes it very clear that her mother wouldn’t have warned her off for anything to do with avoiding pain, and getting inconveniently pregnant wouldn’t be it either — her mother is explicitly of the “gather ye rosebuds” school, and if a possibly doomed-to-be-evil grandchild turned up, she’d throw herself into raising it the same way she did her supposedly doomed-to-be-evil daughter.

    I loved the chapter titles. “Patience”, in particular, I experienced as a gut punch. Then I slowly let myself start thinking it was a fake-out, referring to the actual virtue & the need to wait and be the last to leave the school. And then, nah, sorry, here’s Patience.

    I loved watching El’s rescue count slowly rise to match Orion’s. (I believe at the end of the book he’s saved her life 13 times, she’s saved his 11 times. In a world with a principle of balance, that seems to suggest two more to come).

    I don’t for a minute believe that monster that turned up from Bangkok was the thing that really took that enclave down. We have a horrible surprise coming there. And meanwhile the world has known about El and Orion helping the seniors fix the cleansing mechanism for a year now, and El’s grandmother’s prophecy is out there, and I have to wonder what sort of political disaster she’s about to emerge into.

    I love Liesel. I love Ardhya. I spent much of the book waiting to see whether El’s repeated requests for her allies to abandon her would finally push them into doing exactly that, and the scene where Ardhya says El is what she was given to make up for losing her sister nearly broke me.

    1. The scene where Sudarat explains that her mother will never take her to see the plum trees broke me. Not just because El’s triumph immediately turns to ashes – haha, you can save the seniors but the first years are still toast – but because Sudarat’s mother is lost to her anyway. It might be El’s trigger but Sudarat never gets to go home anyway.

  10. Oh! And the moment where she fixes the gym and everyone except the first years starts sobbing. That was very effective, because of course it would hit them that way; but I didn’t see it coming. I expected them to be overjoyed.

    It’s such a dark world, where getting a glimpse of the things you’re desperate for is heart-breaking. I’m a bit surprised I love it so much.

  11. I forgot it wasn’t still a duology and was very mad about the ending until I looked it up and saw there’s another one coming. I read it all in one go though – I found it pretty compelling. I don’t think I liked it as much as the first, but I’ve definitely read worse second books before. I think it would be better to read the whole set of books through at once – Gideon and Harrow the Ninth were like the too, much better right after each other.

  12. BREAKING: (to me, anyway) The Guardian newspaper has an edited version of Stephen Fry’s introduction from The Folio Society’s edition of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia. He finds much to like. I find much to like in his introduction.

  13. I loved the mice.
    I liked El’s eventual realization that she has to take all the kids. She starts with just saving herself and works through various groups to saving everyone. And hating herself for it every step of the way.

    I thought the ending was driven by the realization she had one more book on the contract. Bah!

  14. I enjoyed it a lot! As soon as I finished I wanted to read the first one again, and did, and then followed through to read it a second time. Part of why I wanted to read *A Deadly Education* again was because there were some things that I thought didn’t quite track, but it turns out they did (e.g. the mid-year cleansing, but then going back there is a line about it happening twice a year, and got a quick reminder that the first one takes place over a couple of weeks rather than a year).

    I see El definitely as an unreliable narrator, and the extent to which that will play out could be interesting.

    As someone else above said, my expectation is that she is going to destroy the enclaves, but not in a reign destruction way like the prediction expects, but through other actions, like the creation of her golden enclaves that mean there isn’t such a steady supply of people willing to work at the beck and call of the older enclaves, which the established enclaves have been relying on – very decline of the British aristocracy – and they end up turning on each other and themselves. The looming war between New York and Shanghai also likely has a role to play.

    She definitely didn’t lure all the mals in the world in the school, but enough to improve the odds for kids for a couple of generations. She got so many because the alchemy kids were able to keep the portals open for longer, and some mals would be near the spots where kids are coming to/from, and others further away would hear the summoning/command when the younger kids go through, so they are near when older kids go through. Of course that means that in areas where there are fewer kids going to the Scholomance, the mal population will not be changed that much. Some allegory to global inequality, vaccine rollout, and potentially even the impacts of climate change could be made there!

    I don’t think the ending was a Jack and the door scenario. With the crack opening faster than the door was closing, there was a risk that Patience would get through. Plus it took El a second to realise she didn’t have to fight Patience, she could run through the doors instead – Orion the obsessive mal hunter wasn’t going to make that leap. And yeah, agree with others that I don’t think he’s dead.

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