by Naomi Novik
I just re-read this book in preparation for the book 2, The Last Graduate, that was recently released. I cannot wait until it gets here. I loved this book. I loved the audiobook. I’ve read it at least three times now.
I’m going to start off by addressing some things that have come up in regards to this book. I think it’s important to talk about these things and not ignore them.
1. Prior to release there was (rightly) a lot of outrage about a particular scene in the book to do with a highly negative portrayal of dreadlocks. Naomi Novik quickly apologized publicly and took steps to make sure this was corrected in editions going forward. I downloaded the ebook from Amazon on release day and it was already corrected in there so I didn’t get to read it in print. However, by the time I listened to the audiobook it hadn’t yet been corrected and it was incredibly jarring and painful to hear, and I hope it’s corrected in audio soon.
2. Also prior to release, there was a lot of discussion about the portrayal of Arabic speakers. One moment in particular. To give some context, the magic in this world revolves a lot around languages and El, our main character, is studying the Arabic language for the first time. She gets a worksheet in Arabic with drawings next to the words she’s supposed to be learning and it contains a picture of “a man in a car about to mow down a couple of hapless pedestrians.” I’ve read thoughts and comments from many people about this issue and there were some who had issues and some who didn’t. I’m adding it here to allow for you to make your own decisions. If this had been the only portrayal of Arabic speakers, it probably would affect my thoughts more. There were other Arabic speakers (not mentioned by name) that El hangs around to learn more about the language and at least one other Arabic speaker that’s in her more immediate peer group.
This book takes place in a magic school, the Scholomance. But it’s not like any magic school that you ever knew before.
Here the school doesn’t really care if you succeed, or live, or die. As long as you complete the assignments set for you. There are no teachers. No set paths for learning. Everyone is anxious to learn, not just because cool magic, but because this magic is going to help them survive the maleficaria (monsters) out there waiting to devour them at every turn.
This set-up appeals to me so much. There are actual stakes to the world and the magic. Reasons for the people to learn the magic and use it. Yes, it goes beyond survival into comfort and then luxury, but the core starts with simple survival.
We’re brought into this school with El, short for Galadriel, whose affinity is towards dark magic, of the toppling empires variety – something she is determined not to allow to happen. Despite the school consistently being ever-so helping in providing spells to make people her minions, or make walls of living flame, or any of the other many dozens of destructive spells it provides unasked for.
I love El. She’s a bit bitter, a lot sarcastic, totally self-sufficient – because she’s had to be – and absolutely understandable. This girl has grown up with her very magic pushing her to be bad, but her mother is the epitome of good, providing her those values and ideals. And because she actually feels them, believes them, and doesn’t want to die a horrible dark sorceress death, she has to fight against not only everyone’s gut reactions to her, but her own affinity.
Then you have this girl, who would rather lash out than let go her pride, meet the school savior – Orion Lake as he’s saving her life for the second time. Orion has single-handedly been saving everyone in the school from the mals that are trying to kill them at every turn.
It turns out that these two, who couldn’t seem more opposite, are perfect friends for each other. Honestly, I loved watching all of El’s friendships develop. She doesn’t really know how to make friends, or what it feels like when she has one, so the surprise when she finds out she has some is understandable.
I read this book absolutely engrossed. I loved El, the world, and the story. It kept me on the edge of my seat, dying to know what would happen next. And when I got to the end, I couldn’t wait to start again.
I said earlier that I listed to the audiobook, and while I can’t really recommend it until the offending passage is fixed, I will say that the narrator is absolutely brilliant and I fell into the story easily as it was told to me.
Finally, I get to start the second book in the series, The Last Graduate. Now.