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Review - Naomi Novik's "The Golden Enclaves", and the Scholomance series
Last week, the last book in Naomi Novik's Scholomance trilogy - The Golden Enclaves - came out. I've been following it since a lot of my online friends got excited about it last year, after Book Two (The Last Graduate) was released. I read the first two books (A Deadly Education and The Last Graduate), loved them, agonized over the twist at the end of Book Two, and eagerly awaited Book Three.
The premise of the series is that Novik takes the stereotype of the magic boarding school with deadly dangers, and asks: what would make parents actually send their kids there? And she answers: if the outside world was even more deadly.
So, wizard kids everywhere are hunted by "mals" who're drawn to their growing magic. Most die. Families who can afford it live in "enclaves" in the Void that only touch Earth at a few gates, so that mals can only get in through those gates. But even then, mals do get in, and the majority of teenagers die. So, eventually, someone founded a boarding school in the Void with hardly any gate: the Scholomance. Mals still get in and kill the majority of students... but it's better than any alternative. And, as one might expect, there're sharp divisions between the rich enclave kids (who, among other advantages, look after each other and share magical power) and everyone else.
I read Book Three, enjoyed it, but - on reflection - found it somewhat thinner than I'd hoped.
I'm going to try to keep this review relatively spoiler-free, since this's a good series worth reading. However, I'm going to have to talk about the general tenor of things, including some things which are surprises, so you might consider that spoiler-filled anyway.
There're a lot of good parts to The Golden Enclaves. The London enclave's gardens are so beautiful and so poignant; the revelations about how both our protagonist El and her boyfriend Orion are affected by their mothers were such well-done twists; the revelations about Liesel and Orion's mother make them both so much more interesting characters; the prophecy about El is fulfilled in such an wonderous way; the climax where she refuses to take the obvious answer but clings to a more excellent route is so well done. And then - Novik writes all this in one book, ably bringing the plot to a close in a book about the same length as the other two. Writers of other trilogies should learn from her example.
Unfortunately, to be able to wrap up the central moral conflict in one book, she simplifies it from how it's been presented earlier. In Deadly Education and Last Graduate, the enclaves are shown as selfish - but understandably so, without ever precisely doing any positive evil but just neglecting the outsiders or charging them unfavorable market rates. When El gets to know individual enclaver kids, she finds them - despite her preconceptions - very human and sympathetic.
I was expecting the same thing to apply with the enclaves outside... but instead, the question gets simplified. Enclaves end up being rooted in positive, explicit acts of evil that shout in our faces. The enclavers' position is understandable, but no longer sympathetic. This simplifies the conflict, letting El solve it more quickly. But it robs the readers of the complicated solution I was hoping to read, and it also frees El from having to work through her resentment of the enclavers - since that resentment is now proved more correct than she had any previous idea of.
Aside from this, things move so quickly toward resolution that so many characters - like El's grandmother and Orion's mother - seem to scarcely be used in the plot. I can think of so many plot hooks that could hang off either of them... but instead, each of them only gets used in a few scenes for one or two dimensions of their characters before the climax.
Novik might say that this simplification was necessary to finish out the plot in a mere three books. Taking the first two books as given, she's probably right. Unfortunately, she set herself this task when plotting out a series in two different settings with almost two different casts of characters - inside the Scholomance with the teenage students there, and outside with adults too. By the end of Book Two, we're only just leaving the Scholomance with no solution to the fundamental moral question of enclaves - save El's utopian dream - being posed. To get a fuller solution, it would need to have been explored inside the Scholomance. A precedent was indeed set there, but it's a different situation. If Novik wasn't planning to simplify the situation, she set herself too big a task in Book Three. If she was, I need to praise her for making the moral question appear larger in her characters' eyes than she was planning to have it actually be in that case... but she should also remember not to force her characters and world into an outline they've outgrown.
Still, I recommend this series. If the premise sounds interesting to you, it's worth reading. Yes, as one of my online friends said, The Golden Enclaves diminished the trilogy in their mind - and mine too. But there's still a lot there.