The Golden Enclaves, by Naomi Novik

I’ve deeply enjoyed reading Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series. I’ve recommended it to many people. And now, having finished it, I’m going to recommend it to you again.

This is how I started my review for the first book in the series:

“[W]hat if Harry Potter, but the school is *literally* a death trap full of monsters and there aren’t any adults around to ‘help?’” Add some socioeconomic inequality, teen drama, a pinch of prophecy, and an antisocial and justifiably angry teen girl for a narrator, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education is like.

The Golden Enclaves delivers a solid close to that story. It is the third and final book in the series and—while the book ends with room available for more sequels if Novik changes her mind—the story is definitely concluded here in ways that will satisfy most readers. “Most,” because I know some folks will just want the story to keep going with these characters forever, which I believe is all according to plan for Novik (or at least a feature rather than a bug).

This book does what I wanted it to do. It resolves many hanging plot threads, it answers a series of questions I’d had since the first book, and—maybe most importantly—it dreams up a future in which people are able to make the world a better place, by hook or by crook. It has hope.

*That’s* the bit I’m most impressed by. That hope.

This book is full of a lot of struggle. It’s full of lots of traumatized kids. People die, or are hurt in awful ways.

But it’s hopeful. And it’s not hopeful in the Harry Potter “let’s go back to the world as it was, and pretend that without resolving any of the issues we’ve discovered everything will be fine” kind of way. It’s hopeful in the “let’s do our damndest to make the world a better place, without destroying it in the meantime” kind of way. The whole series has been hopeful like that, but this book really sticks the landing. And I love it for that.

So many YA and YA-adjacent stories are dystopian, and the resolutions to their dystopian problems rarely feel hopeful or real to me. Either the dystopian world remains awful, or the attempted fix doesn’t work, or the fix works but reeks of deus ex machina and only works because the author says it does.

Novik set up a whole bevy of problems in the first two books and made it clear that the world was an unfair and often awful place. She offered (difficult, dangerous) ways for her characters to work around those problems.And this book, like its series as a whole, manages to follow that thread through to the end without either disappointing me with a total lack of plausibility or falling into hopelessness.

Annnnnnd I hadn’t realized until now that I never reviewed The Last Graduate, the second book in this trilogy. That was an oversight. I’m not going to rectify it before I finish this post though, so here goes.

A warning: if you didn’t like El’s voice as the narrator in the first two books, this series might not be for you. Novik was extremely successful with her creation of her narrator’s voice. She does a good job of keeping everything inside El’s head, and of maintaining El’s voice as a consistent thing. Novik also manages to weave her story and world through El’s unreliability as a narrator without leaving us, her readers, totally bereft of clues that El might not be the most objective and reliable observer. I really admire that. It’s one of the things I love about these books. If that bothers you… you’re out of luck. Try a different series.

A separate warning: one of my friends mentioned El knowing or narrating a few things in this book that seemed outside of her scope of knowledge. I didn’t notice those as I was reading—I was quite caught up in the story and may have missed them. You might stub your toe on them though.

I’m not planning to dive deep into the plot of this book, but I will say that reading more will probably spoil you for the previous books with implications if nothing else. I’ll also casually drop in a few spoilers after this paragraph without further warning. If you care about that, I suggest giving the first book a go. I loved all three, I recommend them, and Novik has done a good job of starting this series as she meant to continue it. The series isn’t bereft of twists, but it’s very thematically consistent—if you like the first book you’ll probably like the rest, and vice versa.

The Golden Enclaves picks up precisely where The Last Graduate leaves off. Very precisely. And the rest of the story doesn’t honestly take all that much time as the setting reckons it. There’s a little slow period near the beginning as El tries to recover from her time in the Scholomance (more or less a machine for traumatizing children until they’ve survived hell). But after that, things move a bit faster. And they snowball wildly out of control, as El finds out what’s been going on outside the Scholomance while she and all the other kids were locked in hell.

Despite this—or actually because of it—there’s still plenty of time for Novik to ladle in several more hefty servings of revolution and commentary on inequality, until they become a driving factor of the story. That’s perfect, because it’s part of what I’m here for. She also adds more queerness, as she did in The Last Graduate, but where it felt unforced in The Last Graduate here it feels more like a surprise.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still here for it. I’m glad that Novik added more queerness, I’m glad to see it in this story. And next time I would love to see her do more of that earlier in a series. Having El find out that she’s surprise-bi in book three, however, felt a bit like a curveball given how carefully Novik sets up almost every other story element, like Novik improvised that element where she’d planned all the rest. Or maybe I was too oblivious, because one of my friends was shipping El and Chloe really hard at the end of book one.

Anyways. My words and thoughts are wandering.

If you want to read about wizard revolutions, or about magically obstinate people warping the world around them into a less destructive and more just place, this is for you.

I love this book. I love this series. I recommend them both. I hope that you enjoy them too.

p.s. my partner pointed out that I gushed more about this book in person than I did here, and I’ve made a couple edits following that. Don’t hold my gray brain weather’s bland tone against this series, I really did delight in these books, and in sharing them by reading them aloud to my partner.

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Update, 3/17/22

Today’s been an odd one. I’ve been productive on other projects, but without a specific book or game lined up to review, I’m at a bit of a loss here.

I’m partway through two books, Teen Killers Club by Lily Sparks, and The Orpheus Plot by Christopher Swiedler. The Orpheus Plot is another middle grade sci-fi book in the same setting as In The Red, this time with slightly more focus on politics and intrigue (a Belter kid wants to join the space navy, which is almost entirely composed of people from Earth, Mars, and the Moon). It does some of the things I’d wanted to see from In The Red, dealing a bit more with the social expectations of people in this setting and how that creates and influences political conflict, so that’s a plus. I’m about halfway through; I’m enjoying it, and I won’t render any verdict yet.

Teen Killers Club caught my attention for being a potential comp title for one of my friend’s YA projects. I’m about a quarter of my way through that one, so I have even less to go on, but at the moment I’d call it a fusion of Holes, Suicide Squad, and the surge in fiction about serial killers from a couple years back. It feels like one-part thriller, one-part mystery, one-part teen camp drama, and it ate a good deal of my time earlier this week and stopped me dead in my tracks in the middle of The Orpheus Project. I’m enjoying it so far.

I’m also rereading Naomi Novik’s socialist-Harry-Potter-but-different The Last Graduate, this time out loud to my partner. They’ve been loving these books (they insisted that I start this one the day after I finished reading the first book, A Deadly Education, to them). That’s good, because I love them too. But I’m not able to read multiple chapters a day because by the time I start reading it’s usually already late. So there’s been an amusing and agonizing dance of trying to find places where I can stop each evening that will both keep them hooked and give them enough breathing room to actually be okay with stopping. The first has been much easier than the second.

Edit: I realized while writing this that I never reviewed The Last Graduate here. I’ll have to rectify that.

I, like several friends of mine, have picked up Vampire Survivors. It’s not an especially complex game, but it does a stunningly good job of catching my attention and holding it. Compulsive. That’s what I’d call it. Usually that’s not a quality I want in a game, but I used it to distract myself from some unwanted thoughts earlier today and that seemed to work pretty well. Maybe not the healthiest solution, but quick and effective at the time.

With a little luck, next week I’ll have finished one of those books and be ready to share my thoughts on it with you.

Paladin’s Strength, by T. Kingfisher

I enjoyed Paladin’s Strength. I knew what I was getting into this time. It’s still fantasy and romance with a few other genre bits tossed in. It’s still good, I still like all the genres in play here—or at least don’t dislike any of them enough to turn me off enjoying the rest of them.

Specifically, romance is kind of hit or miss for me. It’s not my popcorn genre. I don’t feel sucked into it or compelled or fed by it in the same way that I do with other genres, I don’t delight in it the same way. But when it’s well done, and especially when it doesn’t exist on its own, I’m down.

And it turns out that Ursula Vernon (pen name: T. Kingfisher) is good at her job. She’s good at writing characters that I enjoy. She knows the beats for a romance, and she’s happy to improvise around them with other interesting genre material. I don’t think I want to read more of her romances right now—I could use a palate cleanser, a break—but I like the world she’s established enough to want more of that, and if that requires reading romance I guess I’m down.

I just wish the romance were more queer.

Queer romance isn’t a necessity for me, but it does feel like a big boon. I’m not sure precisely what about it appeals most to me. Maybe it’s just the way in which queer romance seems more likely to diverge from classic gendered expectations of romantic relationships and interactions? Maybe I’d be down with het romance if it hewed less closely to conventional gender roles for its development.

Unfortunately, that queerness is not very present in this story. For all that Vernon does an excellent job making her characters feel like people, the central romance still feels fairly conventional to me (though I should note that Vernon continues to do fun things with healthier and more interesting relationships than I usually see in romances). There are certainly queer folks around, and there are queer characters baked into the background of the world in such a way that they are both unignorable and totally normal. That’s good. A big plus. But I’ve been hoping that this series would diverge further from conventions, and it hasn’t yet.

Apparently, from the blurb I’ve read, the next book in the series will have queer romantic leads. It should come out next year, Paladin’s Hope, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s about two characters I’ve liked in smaller roles in these first two books, so I’m very ready for it. Hopefully that romance feels less conventional too.

Despite my complaints, I think I’m learning. I’m certainly getting a better handle on how a genre + romance combo works. The romance is broadcast early on, usually through a meet-cute or some sufficiently distinctive interaction to anchor the pair’s dynamic for the reader, and then there’s a tremendous pile of will-they-won’t-they and yearning lustful thoughts before some kind of more satisfying release (ahem) close to the denouement, often just before the climax (AHEM) comes to a head (god, everything is sexual, this is like high school).

Obviously, there’s some room for variation, and for stylings around the edges. Novik and Vernon (and Bujold) don’t structure their romances exactly the same way… but they’re close enough to each other, for the most part.

I don’t plan on writing much in the romance genre per se, but it’s nice to know the structure and conventions to be able to play around with it on the sides of other stories.

Anyway, yes, much like with the previous book, Paladin’s Grace, if you like romance and don’t mind fantasy, mystery, and intrigue—or if you like fantasy, mystery, and intrigue and don’t mind romance—you’ll probably enjoy this book. This book might not be for you if any of those things is unpalatable for you. But if you’re not sure, or you’ve only read bad examples of those genres previously, give these books a try. Vernon is good at her craft.

Paladin’s Grace, by T. Kingfisher

Paladin’s Grace went by quickly. I was hooked early, and pulled right on through. The many good things I’d heard about Ursula Vernon’s work feel like they apply here too.

Side note: T. Kingfisher and Ursula Vernon are the same person, T. Kingfisher is the pen name used for a whole suite of Ursula Vernon’s projects. I’ve meant to read Ursula Vernon’s work, especially Digger, for a while now. When I learned about her pen name, I signed up for these books right away. Easier to get them as ebooks from the library than to find a good, physical omnibus of the comic.

I was a little surprised, however. I hadn’t realized this would be romance. I think I might have enjoyed Paladin’s Grace more if I’d known beforehand that it was. But I did enjoy it, and it’s my own fault for not reading any of the book’s theming data—besides which, the fact that the story is romance is pretty abundantly obvious when, soon after the cishet meet-awkward, the narration is overtaken by constant thoughts about the other party.

My genre-revelation wasn’t a problem. I already knew that I enjoyed some fantasy romance (thanks Naomi Novik & Lois McMaster Bujold). If you actively dislike romance (in this case, lots of wistful thoughts and mostly-unfulfilled lusting), you may not like this book. If you can tolerate romance, this book has a bunch of other good stuff in it too, things that usually don’t end up in romance stories. After all, as Ursula Vernon acknowledges in her author’s note, most romance doesn’t accompany grisly fantasy murder mystery, dead gods, and legal drama. The perfume and frequent discussion of scents is perhaps the most normal detail. The fact that one of the leads is a perfumer may be a little less normal, as are her frequent attempts to mentally reconstruct nearly every smell she comes across, no matter how foul.

Anyway.

I absolutely recommend this book if you want solid fantasy fun. If you hate romance, that’s more complicated. If, like some of my friends, you only find romance palatable when it’s queer… I’m sorry, this book will not satisfy you.

But if you’re as intrigued as I was by a story about a paladin whose god has died, have at it. I had a good time.

A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik

This book reads like fanfic grown wild and untamed, the sturdy and feral descendant of stories past. That, in my mind, is a good thing.

I tried to sum up the novel’s concept, as practice for making pitches and loglines, and came up with something like… “what if Harry Potter, but the school is *literally* a death trap full of monsters and there aren’t any adults around to ‘help?’” Add some socioeconomic inequality, teen drama, a pinch of prophecy, and an antisocial and justifiably angry teen girl for a narrator, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education is like.

I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

I did not, apparently, read the first released edition. Before posting this, I read a little bit of other commentary on A Deadly Education, to doublecheck my own impressions, and found some critiques of what seemed like racist content that I had entirely missed. It turns out that I wasn’t oblivious (this time): Naomi Novik acknowledged those critiques after receiving them last fall, said the language was unintentional, undesired, and unnecessary, and removed it from later versions of the text (including the version I read).

Honestly, the only thing that seemed off to me was the lack of more queer folks. As someone who works with kids and teens, I’m kind of surprised that there was so little overt inclusion of characters who weren’t cis and het, even in the background. Yes, it’s easy to read one or two characters as queer, but “plausibly deniable” inclusion just isn’t the same thing. I know that Novik has included queer people in her Temeraire books (only as side characters sadly, but important and beloved ones), and—given the change in context from Napoleonic-era historical fantasy to modern teen fantasy—the general lack seems like an avoidable oversight.

Now, of course, dating and romance necessarily take a back seat to simply surviving in this story. Certainly it could be argued that our protagonist, outcast that she is, is paying more attention to other things than the sexualities and genders of those around her. But she’s also an astute social observer, and I would expect her to pay attention to who was dating whom (or who was crushing on whom) if only for the way that those relationships would change power dynamics in the Scholomance. Surely someone in that hell-pit of a school is openly queer.

That said, the lack of more queer rep was not a dealbreaker for me. I was still stuck in this book, pulled back in repeatedly. I’d open it while my computer turned on, and then keep reading while the machine patiently waited for my password. I’d open it when I sat down for lunch, and lose an afternoon. I’d open it as I lay in bed, and then struggle to put it down and sleep. This book grabbed me, and I want the sequel.

Putting those issues aside, I rather liked the book’s commentary and focus on inequality, and the way that inequality is baked into the setting as a driving force. It’s poignantly, painfully honest—and reminds me in a good way of later themes in the Temeraire series. The resources available to any wizard are a vital concern, and they’re literally life or death for students in the Scholomance. People will do nearly anything to get an edge, or keep one, and that desperation is the lifeblood of this book. I’m so glad that it’s brought to the forefront here.

Yes, I recommend this book. If you wanted more teen wizards, awful and dangerous schools, teenage drama in terrible circumstances, or delightfully and justifiably angry female narrators, this book will make you very happy. Indulge yourself.

Also, if you want another perspective on the book, check out this naga’s thoughts. I used the image at top from that site.

League of Dragons, by Naomi Novik

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I’m surprised to find that I’ve only reviewed one other book in this series in any depth.

 

As that review mentions, I’m definitely a fan of the Temeraire series. But more to the point, I think that League of Dragons is an excellent finish to this series. Better than many of the preceding books, which is difficult. Better than some of the really good preceding books, which is even harder.

In many ways, this book shows Novik doing exactly the opposite of what Stirling so loves; she somehow manages to cut out all the slow bits of the novel while keeping all the pieces that are important to the story. But that’s wrong, because it’s not like this is a non-stop action adventure. This takes plenty of time to devote itself to social intricacies, diplomatic considerations and the like… but Novik knows what matters, and she takes out everything else. She has a narrow focus on the heart of this story, and she has honed it until it delivers exactly that. Yes, there’s a little extra around the edges, but only enough fat to let you enjoy the flavor without overpowering the piece itself.

I want to stress, from personal experience, just how hard it is to do that. I can only imagine how much material must lie on the cutting room floor. There have to be scenes, long and involved scenes, which simply didn’t end up necessary to telling this story in the best way. The clarity and relative brevity of this story speak volumes about the discipline shown by Novik (and presumably her editor) in making this book, and I think I’ll return to this book to appreciate this for some time to come.

Funny. I’ve hit this point in the review, the one where I could start delving into further intricacies to tell you about particular bits of goodness, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s enough that this is a good series about dragons. That it is also a story about a British man in the early 1800’s who learns that, maybe, more people are people than he had realized is (exceptionally good) gravy. The fact that it somehow encompasses adventure and social intrigue and feels like period fiction in the best possible way only makes it better.

If you haven’t read the series yet, you have a great deal to look forward to. Except that book about Australia, which is unfortunately rather sluggish but let’s not talk about that. Go ahead and enjoy.

End of Semester Delays

My posting won’t go back to normal for the next two weeks, I think. I’m too distracted by the things I have to finish for my last two sets of classes.

On the up side, I have had a chance to look at lots of books recently, and I have a few to recommend.

Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is a fun story in an awesome fantasy setting. My only reservations revolve around how it follows a bunch of romance genre conventions in a way that I find a little less appealing. This isn’t because I have something against good romance work — I love Bujold’s romance stories — but because I don’t like the dynamic between the two romance leads as much as I like the rest of the story. And to be clear, most of the story isn’t very heavy on the romance. But it is definitely there.

Hmm, that sounds less like the recommendation I thought I was writing and more like a warning. It’s a fun book, and I *do* recommend it. It has an Eastern European setting with witches and magic and Baba Yaga type stuff! What more could you want? I rather enjoyed it.

And, on the picturebook front, I strongly encourage you to look at Water Is Water, published last year. It is gorgeous. It has so much detail and setting layered into each image. As a Vermonter, it gave me little nostalgic quivers. It’s worth reading.

Blood of Tyrants, by Naomi Novik

Have you read any of Naomi Novik‘s Temeraire series?  No?  Sit down and treat yourself to the first one, His Majesty’s Dragon.  You’ll stumble in surprise as you read the first few pages, only to find yourself running, tearing through chapters until you’ve finished the first book before you even truly realize you’d begun it.  The series is a mad combination of the geniuses of C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian, and Jane Austen, and is studded throughout with the strangely fitting addition of dragons.  I found it too odd to pass up, and then too good to put down.  Blood of Tyrants is an excellent continuation of the series.

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