This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Last Graduate will be released on September 28, 2021.
Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education may not have been the best book I read last year, but the action-packed dark magic school novel was certainly one of the most fun, with a tantalizing ending that made The Last Graduate one of my most-anticipated sequels of 2021. And it absolutely lives up to expectations, bringing more of everything that made A Deadly Education great while expanding the scope and providing another excellent hook for book three.
[Note: I will try to avoid significant spoilers for both A Deadly Education and The Last Graduate in this review.]
The Last Graduate begins in the same scene where A Deadly Education finished, as El and her class prepare to begin their final year at the Scholomance. This also represents the first influx of new students since the series began, and with them trickles in news of the outside world. Of course, anything from the outside world is bound to be forced onto the backburner as the students undertake another year of trying to survive random monster encounters and preparing for the large-scale survival battle that is graduation. But, even amidst the monsters and the teenage angst, The Last Graduate nevertheless begins to delve deeper into how the outside world affects what happens in the school, and how what happens in the school may affect the outside world.
Honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine any fan of A Deadly Education not loving The Last Graduate. It includes and expands on everything that made the first book great. El learning how to relate to other people? Yep—she continues building the relationships that began in A Deadly Education and forges a host of new ones. Monsters behind every corner, and a big, climactic fight scene? Check and check. The distribution of threats has changed, but El still has plenty to fight, and the finale was enough to top the nail-biting closer from the first book. Exploration of inequality in magical society? Even deeper than in book one, as the influx of outside news begins to illustrate the rivalries between enclaves and their consequences, pushing beyond (although not putting aside) the rich kid/poor kid distinction from the first book. And The Last Graduate throws itself headlong at the problem of why parents would intentionally send their children to a murderous magic school—and, even worse, send them with the message that only the selfish survive—an issue that was addressed in the first book but still created some difficulty with suspension of disbelief.
The Last Graduate is not without its flaws, but all of them were baked in from the beginning of the series, so anyone who was able to look past them in A Deadly Education will probably do so again here. There is a bit of a lull in the middle, but anyone who has read 300 pages of El’s meandering narration understands that the fight scenes will be seasoned with long digressions into backstory. It won’t be all action all the time, but El’s narrative voice is strong enough to carry the slow parts, just as it was in the first book. Similarly, the fairly monocultural magical world—with diversity mostly limited to obvious ethnic or linguistic markers—may be disappointing, but it’s hardly unexpected after seeing the same in A Deadly Education. And the enormously overpowered leads may feel a little over-the-top at times, but anyone who read about the exploits of Orion and El in the first book knows exactly what to expect in the sequel.
On the whole, The Last Graduate doesn’t fix all of the flaws of the first book, but it keeps all of the fun, moves the relationships forward, and expands the scope, ultimately delivering a heart-pounding installment with a satisfying conclusion of its own and an excellent hook for yet another step forward in book three.
Recommended if you like: magic schools, prickly protagonists learning how to live with other people, meandering first-person narration, lots of monster-fighting.
Can I use it for Bingo? I’d argue it fits hard mode for both Found Family and Witches, as well as being First Person POV and a 2021 Publication.
Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.