Sci-fi/fantasy novels are often written to be read in sequential order and The Last Graduate is no exception. Because the books tell one long story, this review contains spoilers for the previous novel – A Deadly Education – pretty much from the first sentence on.
El Higgins has successfully reached her senior year, not an easy feat in a school where a good percentage of kids don’t survive to commencement. She and her friends, most especially Orion Lake, have repaired the cleansing equipment in the graduation hall, which means that for a few glorious days they will have at least a little peace from the largest and most deadly of the maleficaria, the child-eating monsters that roam the academy’s halls gobbling up the unwary.
El is going to need that advantage. Her new schedule has her starting the day in a type of study hall/homeroom, which she inexplicably shares with a group of freshmen. The rest of her course lineup arrives as she and the youngsters are arranging themselves into the safest formation against possible attacks, and it is worse than El could have imagined – she has four seminars, all of them odd and rare which will most likely mean they are independent studies or have a handful of students at best. At the Scholomance that’s practically a death sentence, since maleficaria like nothing better than to find a student alone/nearly alone as it places the odds definitively in the beast’s favor.
El has only begun to wonder if the school is out to get her when the baby vipersac attacks and she has a choice of letting a few of the freshmen die or using some of her hard-earned mana saving them. She does the latter with ill grace, which is a good thing because her maybe/who knows boyfriend Orion chooses the moment they are being besieged to come racing up the stairs to find El, making himself the primary target. They all survive but El misses breakfast so she is definitely hangry as she goes about the rest of her day.
Things only get worse over the next few weeks. Her seminars turn out to be as dangerous as she feared, and she finds herself saving the freshmen in her homeroom class on a daily basis. She is given no time or means to build mana, and her reserves – which enable her to fight maleficaria – grow dangerously low. Every time she goes anywhere or does anything to fix the problem, she is placed in mortal danger. But the school has a reason for its seeming torture of El. It wants her to learn something. Something all the students – and their parents – should have picked up on already. In Wisdom, Shelter is the motto emblazoned on the walls. The Scholomance is determined that at least one student will graduate knowing what that means, even if it has to kill them to make them understand.
We learned early on that Ell is extremely powerful and has the capacity to do monstrously huge workings, emphasis on the monstrous. Using magic for a simple spell to clean her room is beyond her but bewitchments that involve razing cities or destroying entire populations are her forté (or so the prophecy at her birth claims). Since El has no desire to be an evil, world-destroying malificer, she has never seen a purpose to her “gift”.
A lot of the story this time around concentrates on El seeing her powers in a different light and realizing how they can be used to build rather than destroy. Helping her on this journey of discovery is the friendship of Aadhya and Liu and their budding alliance with Chloe, a girl from the New York Enclave who is a genuinely decent human being with the unpleasant task of trying to lure El to New York and away from her home in Wales.
Interestingly, just as El is being given all the options she ever dreamed of to leave the commune she grew up in, she is discovering how very much she has ingested the lessons she learned there. From performing healing circles for casual acquaintances to rescuing those actively trying to do her harm, and extending the hand of friendship to former enemies, she is truly becoming her mother’s daughter. El is still her grumpy, sarcastic, snarky self but she is allowing the heart of gold that has always been hidden by her crusty exterior to shine through.
That’s actually one of the main storylines in this second volume, which is very much a transition book, getting us from where we were at the end of book one to where the author clearly wants us for the beginning of book three. The change in El, as she begins to embrace more fully who she desires to be as a person and a magician while still being true to her grumpy nature, is great. I loved that she is expanding her friend circle and able to be part of a community with others and I loved how the cast of charactersiss so diverse and fun.
The prose is, as always, lovely, and I found myself easily enchanted by the tale of the semi-sentient Scholomance and intrigued by the mystery of what it is trying to teach El.
Less great is that while El is doing all that personal growth, Orion is reduced to almost a footnote until the end of the story. While this narrative is not a romance, the budding relationship between the two was an important part of El’s character arc in the last novel and having it take a background role in this tale left the story feeling incomplete. There are some strong interactions that almost make up for that in the last few chapters but then we have the finale -which is a total clif hanger that places both of them in a horrific situation that is seemingly impossible to get out of.
As I was reeling from the frustrating ‘conclusion’ I couldn’t help but think that there had been lots of ways to avoid it. Another frustration came from a problem inherent to YA: In order for teenagers to be resolving an issue, as opposed to adults, it must be an obstacle that is uniquely theirs and to which only they hold the solution, or the grownups around them must be complete incompetents or totally uncaring. The conundrums surrounding the Scholomance lean towards the latter and I found myself struggling to believe that any set of adults could be quite that negligent.
Middle books in a trilogy often serve as links within the overarching narrative of a series and that is certainly true of The Last Graduate. While I found the characters as winsome, the writing as smooth and lovely and the general plot intriguing as ever, I was frustrated by the fact that it felt as though it was all just buildup for the coming main event and so I was left a bit dissatisfied.
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