by Naomi Novik
Publication: September 28, 2021
Series: The Scholomance #2
**I received a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.
El has survived her first three years in the Scholomance and has just one final year to go. With graduation looming, survival training is also around the corner because graduation isn’t walking across the stage to pomp and circumstance but a fight for your life against mals that are ready to pounce and devour you. With an alliance in place and friends standing by her side, El might have a real chance at freedom.
The Last Graduate continues El’s journey to subvert the prophecy that has dictated her life and the expectations of those around her. While there are changes to El’s life and her character, her growth since A Deadly Education and during The Last Graduate doesn’t turn her into a completely different person. Thank goodness because I love her just as she is. In this book, the layers are peeled back further to reveal El’s true nature, the one she’s tried so hard to hide underneath her prickly attitude and sarcasm. Her actions in the book and her vulnerability felt true to her character.
El learning to navigate her new relationships is a highlight of the novel. Her friendships with Liu and Aadhya, which always felt tentative to her before, are strengthened and reaffirmed. Of course, her fight or flight response continues to rear its head when conflicts arise that may affect her new relationships, but she’s learning to understand what it means to have friends. They don’t up and leave at the first sign of trouble; they stick with you, especially when times get hard. They stick with you even when you give them an out. Finding friends and realizing she is no longer alone has also led to weight being lifted off her shoulders. She can smile and laugh, imagine life beyond graduation, and even want to change the world. These changes underscore how lonely she was in the first book even though she refused to admit it. El is such a complex character, and I completely adore her.
Orion’s appearances are sparser here, but he remains a thorn in El’s side, albeit one that doesn’t hurt as much anymore. She continues to be his advocate, and I love her for seeing him and treating him like the person he is rather than the oddity his family, his enclave, and mostly everyone else thinks he is. See? She’s all prickly and sarcastic, but it’s just to hide her big, bleeding heart.
The writing remains the same as in A Deadly Education with El explaining origins and context before she gets to what is going on. Because there was a learning curve to understanding the Scholomance, I didn’t mind it in the first book, but there were a few moments in The Last Graduate where I wanted to skip forward. The amount of information provided can be overwhelming–there is so much. I just wanted to know what was going to happen rather than what led to the moment she was in. However, skipping also meant potentially missing the connection between whatever she was talking about and her current predicament, so wanting to skip never turned into actually skipping.
The Last Graduate is not as fast-paced as the first book, but it is nearly as engaging. Attacks by mals are expected, and people trying to kill you are just a normal part of the day. These aren’t as surprising anymore. I finished it quickly, but I needed to take a break to process the damn ending. To be honest, I’m still processing it. I haven’t been able to reach out for a new book because my brain is still asking myself why I didn’t see this being the particular ending when it was one of the alternate endings I had come up with. (Any else like to think up the many possible endings to a book?) I’m giving fair warning that it is a cliffhanger. I sort of wish I waited for the last book to binge the entire trilogy, but I didn’t have any self-control. Now, I have to wait a year to know what happened. If you enjoyed A Deadly Education, you’ll enjoy The Last Graduate. A year will feel like an eternity as I wait for the final book.
**Some remaining thoughts I wanted to put out there.**
One of the reasons why I like The Scholomance Trilogy is how it illustrates the prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma happens when rational individuals pursue their self-interest, refusing to cooperate, and so end up with an outcome that is not as ideal as the one they would have received if they worked together. In the book, individuals must fight for their survival and learn to increase their chances of making it out alive by becoming part of a collective. With El’s focus on reciprocation–ensuring those who might ally with her know she always pays back favors to those she receives them from–she works toward securing an alliance that can help increase her odds of living through graduation. The Last Graduate gives a glimpse of how the prisoner’s dilemma can be solved, how building trust between individuals can be the difference between life and death. Yeah, I’m nerdy like that.