Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The Scholomance Series (Including #1, A Deadly Education, and #2, The Last Graduate) - Naomi Novik

Today we're reviewing the first two books in The Scholomance series by Naomi Novik,  A Deadly Education and The Last Graduate.  Reading the second review will spoil the first book.  You've been warned.  

A Deadly Education
Summary: I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he saved my life.

Everyone loves Orion Lake.  Everyone else, that is.  Far as I'm concerned, he can keep his flashy combat magic to himself.  I'm not joining his pack of adoring fans.  

I don't need help surviving the Scholomance, even if they do.  Forget the hordes of monster and cursed artifacts -- I'm probably the most dangerous thing in the place.  Just give me a chance and I'll level mountains and kill untold millions, make myself the dark queen of the world.  At least, that's what the world expects.  Most of the other students in here would be delighted if Orion killed me like one more evil thing that's crawled out of the drains.  Sometimes I think they want me to turn into the evil witch they assume I am.  the school certainly does. 

But the Scholomance isn't getting what it wants from me.  And neither is Orion Lake.  I may not be anyone's idea of the shining hero, but I'm going to make it out of this place alive, and I'm not going to slaughter thousands to do it either.   Although I'm giving serious consideration to just one.

(Summary from book flap - Image from

My Review: I hereby dub Naomi Novik the Queen of Dramatic Entrances and Exits.  The Lady of Epic First and Last Lines.  The opening sentence of A Deadly Education is an instant hook.  You've already read it, actually.  It's in the above summary and likely what enticed you to read this review:  

I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life.  

I mean, who doesn't have questions that need answering after a sentence like that?!  And the last line of the book?  Well, all I will say is if it doesn't have you reaching for the next book, The Last Graduate, I don't know if we can be friends.  

Okay.  I had to get that out of my system.  Now I can try to write a normal review.  *ahem*

Wizards. Spell books. A magical school. I know what you're thinking and let me stop you right there.  A Deadly Education is not another HP wannabe; it's got it's own thing going -- an action-packed, rollicking good time set inside a clever, inhospitable world, with a decidedly remarkable heroine.   

In A Deadly Education, young wizards of the Scholomance train to use their magical powers of incantation, alchemy, or artifice, while battling a host of looming threats.  Danger, even death, lurks behind air vents, inside shower drains, under lunch tables, and down every darkened corridor.  Those who lower their guard, fall prey to the mals, an inventive array of monsters that routinely infiltrate the school to gorge themselves on a dead wizard energy, or the malifecers, fellow wizards who use dark energy to get ahead.  Once in, there is one way out of the Scholomance, other than death --through the 'graduation gates,' a section of the school teeming with the worst sort of mals.  Only those wizards with strong energy and trusted allies stand any chance of survival and both can be hard to come by.  Those who survive are virtually guaranteed access to power, safety and wealth, in whatever enclave will have them.  

El refuses to be just another hapless damsel in distress resident school 'hero' Orion Lake has saved from imminent death. Twice. She has enough power to level cities; it's just a wee bit volatile, so she keep her affinity for destruction under wraps.  Now Orion Lake is following her around and the whole school thinks they're dating, which brings all sorts of unwanted attention.  His rescue makes her look weak and his interest makes her a threat.  El's needs a powerful alliance if she's to survive graduation, but in the Scholomance one thing is certain -- everything comes with a price.  

El's a plucky heroine, that is hard to like but easy to love -- full of sass, fire, and tremendous courage -- and easily my favorite part of the book.  Underneath all her posturing and prickles, lies a genuinely good person who does the right thing even when no one is looking (though she isn't likely to admit it).  El's interaction with others is hilarious at times, especially when it comes to Orion, who provides as an uber-light romantic component to the plot that is quite fun but not central to the overall story.  Mostly, I loved following El's character arc from acid-tongued loner to cautious team player as she ever-so-slowly finds her tribe and learns to trust and to give without expecting anything in return.  

El's school is just this whole other thing.... I loved that the Scholomance felt like a character, with it's own moods, motivations, quirks, and personality.  Like the students, I was never quite sure what the school would do, nor was I entirely certain whether it was good or evil.  It seemed to have it's own reasons for doing what it did, but I haven't pinned them down yet.  Perhaps those answers are being left in reserve for other books in the series.  The Scholomance is not Hogwarts, nor is Hogwarts the Scholomance.  In certain ways, the Scholomance is more interesting.  

A Deadly Education can be read purely for entertainment, but it was hard not to notice some of the real-world parallels that could be drawn between the students who come from enclaves (and thus have guaranteed spots after graduations) and those who come from less fortunate circumstances.  Anyone wishing to discuss topics like social inequality, class privilege, morality, etc. would find plenty of relevant material.  Novik even includes drawings at the end of the book to show the difference between the rooms (and resources) of wealthier students vs. poorer students.  I suspect she will continue to explore these issues in other books and I look forward to the results.

I have a few criticisms of the book that you can take or leave as you will.  Initially, the story's vernacular was a lot, but once you get past the explanations and settle in it gets easier to process. Next, there was more profanity than I like to read, and finally, it seemed primarily plot driven and, thus, lacking character development.  El keeps to herself and doesn't know much about the other characters, and since the story is written from a first person POV, the reader won't either, but the problem was that I didn't really feel like I could 'see' any of them in my head.  At best, I could guess at their ethnicity based on their name or enclave status, but it felt kind of presumptive to just start picturing anyone named Kaito as Japanese, you know?  

Criticisms aside, A Deadly Education is one of those books that I could easily have read in one sitting if I didn't have other obligations.  I do, so I didn't, but I definitely could.  Instead, I drew it out a bit and, reading between tasks, finished in two days.  And that's that.  Excuse me, while I get on with the highly-anticipated and desirable task of reading the sequel.  As always, I'll let you know how it goes... 

My Rating: 4.25 Stars 

For the Sensitive Reader: The characters occasionally use words like 'effing' but most just drop fully loaded f-bombs (approximately 7-10 times total).  A few uses of a British derogatory term (aka tw*t).  One joking sexual reference to "pet mals" that lives in all boys' pants. *eyeroll* 



Summary:  In Wisdom, Shelter.

That's the official motto of the Scholomance.  I supposed you could even argue that it's true -- only the wisdom is hard to come by, so the shelter's rather scant.

Our beloved school does its best to devour all its students -- but now that I've reached my senior year and have actually won myself a handful of allies, it's suddenly developed a very particular craving for me.  And even if I somehow make it through the endless waves of maleficaria that it keeps throwing at me in between grueling homework assignments, I haven't any idea how my allies and I are going to make it through the graduation hall alive. 

Unless, of course, I finally accept my foretold destiny of dark sorcery and destruction.  That would certainly let me sail straight out of here.  The course of wisdom, surely.

But I'm not giving in -- not to the mals, not to fate, and especially not to the Scholomance.  I'm going to get myself and my friends out of this hideous place for good -- even if it's the last thing I do. 

(Summary from book flap - Image from

My Review:   Naomi Novik, the heretofore dubbed Queen of Dramatic Entrances and Exits, and Lady of First and Last Lines is on my list -- a list I reserve especially for authors that like to end on cliffhangers so deliciously evil that I am forced to make a list especially for them.   If you are incapable of waiting a yet-to-be-determined length of time for the not-yet-titled third book to release -- approach this book with caution.  You have been warned.  

The Last Graduate picks up immediately after the events of A Deadly Education, with barely a breath between the end of one book, where El receives a cryptic warning from her motherand the beginning of the next, where she quickly decides to ignore it.  El has enough to worry.  The Scholomance has inducted a new round of helpless students and although the mals are giving Orion a wide berth, El, seems to have become their sole focus.  The entire senior class is prepping madly for graduation, solidifying alliances, taking out threats, and tackling a treacherous obstacle course that is supposed to help them, but grows more deadly with every attempt to defeat it.  It's pretty nuts.  Meanwhile, El has a dark prophecy hanging over her head, a more-brutal-than-usual course load, and she can't help feeling the school is up to something.  When El finally realizes the awful truth, she hatches a mad plan that may or may not get everyone killed.  Will she stand alone to face the looming threat or find new friends willing to fight alongside her? 

El's personality is the best; her dry humor and sarcasm are flipping hysterical and she's entirely too curmudgeonly for a girl her age, which only made me love her more.  One of my favorite lines from the book discusses El's thoughts about saving a fellow student, and it reads, "I did have to turn one of them to stone at one point to save her from being bitten in half, but I turned her back afterwards, so I don't see what the problem was."  This type of matter of fact, do-what-must-be-done flippancy is classic El. Though she may try to fight it and would certainly deny it, El has a fierce moral integrity and a genuine concern for others, and I admire her outright refusal to take the easier path.  

In The Last Graduate, El states that the Scholomance "isn't exactly a living thing, but it isn't exactly not."  It is hard to define the school as 'good' or 'evil,' but it most certainly has a personality and purpose. Whatever it may be, the school has a lot going on behind the scenes and I loved this aspect of the story.  As the story progresses, the school's motivations become clearer and I came to more fully appreciate its idiosyncrasies and my feelings toward it, shall we say, expanded a bit.  

One of my favorite aspects of the book is hard to describe without spoilers --- so I am going to intentionally 'vague it up' a bit.  I loved the relationship arc between El, her friends (she has friends!), and the other students, how their interactions change over the course of the book, and the accompanying moral message (Which, again, I can't get into, because spoilers.)  I can say that I think that message made the book.  

Now for the less fun part...

As often happens in YA novels, the tone of The Last Graduate is more 'adult' than A Deadly Education, with more adult themes regarding sexuality and sexual situations.  If you're bothered by this sort of thing, you can read more specifics about these things in the 'for the sensitive reader' section at the end of this review.  Moving on.  I wish that more time had been spent on character development because, scads of new characters were introduced and many of them felt like faceless names on a page because I didn't have much to go on.  Sometimes I felt like the author was stalling for time, loading a particular scene with interesting but unnecessary details in order to hit a certain page count before proceeding to the final encounter.  There were also so many different types of mals that I eventually stopped trying to keep track, opting to simply accept the idea that they were varied, dangerous, and innumerable (which, now that I think about it, might have been the point).  Finally, I spent much of the book wondering why El's mother gave her such a cryptic warning about Orion and I am not entirely content with the book's answer.

Towards the end of the book, the pace really picked up and I was swept away, white-knuckling my way through it and thoroughly enjoying the ride.  That is, until I was flung headlong off a cliff in true Novik fashion, with a brutal parting line, a final sentence even worse than the previous book that will leave the reader scrabbling for any hold and dutiful searching for the next book.  Good luck finding any!  As of 11/21 there isn't a peep.  Like I said -- Naomi Novik is on my list.

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are some more 'adult' themes in this book than the last, with sexual innuendo, mention of kissing between two female characters, brief kissing between two male characters, as well as several pages of moderately descriptive 'making out' and sexual intimacy between a male and female character.  Some violence, crude words, and profanity in this book, though slightly less than in the last one.

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