At this point, so many books have been described as “Harry Potter, but for adults” that it’s easy to glaze over when the description comes up again. But Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, about kids at a preposterously deadly magical school, stands out in a ridiculously crowded field. Its sheer viciousness, its grim humor, and its complicated interpersonal politics are an immediate draw. But the big emotions of high school are still present, as a protagonist who isn’t her school’s Chosen One — she knows that guy, and thinks he’s annoying — tries to navigate a lethal environment where kids frequently murder each other for power, if monsters don’t get them first.
Like Novik’s Temeraire novels, which rewrite the Napoleonic Wars for a world with an entire field of aviation built around dragons, or her standalone novels Uprooted and Spinning Silver, which build on existing fairy tales, 2020’s A Deadly Education and the new sequel The Last Graduate are as much works of scholarship as works of fantasy. All her novels are compelling and immersive, and they all reimagine existing history and folklore in strikingly new ways. The Scholomance books were partly inspired by a pair of Eastern European legends about a school of magic where Satan claims the soul of the last graduate to leave.
But Novik doesn’t deny the Harry Potter connection, either.
“It’s influenced by Harry Potter fandom,” she told Polygon in a video chat ahead of The Last Graduate’s release. “I’ve been a Harry Potter fan at various points of my life, I’ve written fanfic for Harry Potter. But for me, fandom is not a passive experience. The only things I care enough about to be a fan of are the things I want to pull apart, to see how it works. ‘What’s missing here? What is jangling with me?’”
What fascinated and “jangled” Novik about the Harry Potter books was the economy of a world where magic is fundamentally free. She feels that aspect of J.K. Rowling’s novels, where wizards cast spells without cost or personal investment, comes from Rowling’s own experience with poverty. “I feel that quite viscerally. You see Harry coming into this place of wonders, and it’s all about shopping, about having all the money he needs, and all the things he can buy with it. And if you ever visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the rides aren’t the pleasure there, the pleasure is walking through the stores, saying ‘I am in Harry Potter’s universe, and I can buy the magical sugar, and the quills and the jellybeans, and the books of magic, and the robes, and all that.’ Because that’s what she didn’t have at the time.”
Novik says that focus on abundance, and who does and doesn’t have it, is one of the fatal flaws of Rowling’s series. “The world, when you start poking at it, doesn’t work. Magic doesn’t cost anything, right? So why are the Weasleys poor? Half of them are adults, fully grown certified wizards, all of them apparently quite talented and smart. If magic doesn’t cost anything except the time it takes to learn it and cast it, then the more wizards you have, the richer you are, right? Wizards should be trying to have all the kids they could possibly have.”
Questions like that — and Novik’s fascination, at age 10, with the Scholomance legend she found in The Annotated Dracula and the Time-Life Enchanted World Series book Witches and Wizards — are at the core of A Deadly Education and The Last Graduate. In Novik’s series, the entire world is crawling with “maleficaria,” or “mals” for short. They’re a wide variety of extremely aggressive and predatory creatures that eat magic, and are drawn to anything that manipulates it. Children with magical abilities are almost inevitably consumed by maleficaria before they can learn to protect themselves.
Even adults are rarely safe. The most powerful magic-users hole up in enclaves, where they share magical power, or mana, as a resource for great workings that keep the maleficaria at bay. One of these great workings is the Scholomance, a school with no teachers or administration — the school itself teaches the children, who are sealed inside it for safety. But the Scholomance is sneaky, aggressive, and perverse itself, and students have to trick and cadge lessons out of it. They also have to be constantly aware of the lethal maleficaria that slip inside. The school isn’t a place of safety, so much as a place of slightly less risk than the outside.
Which brings Novik back to the Harry Potter books, and the students in Rowling’s stories who get turned to stone, changed into animals, or outright murdered. “If you take one step back, you’re like, why didn’t the Safety and Health Commission shut down the school a long time ago? Kids are dying. But that’s a superficial thing. For Rowling, clearly the school is still this place of refuge, of joy, of wonder. And I was looking at the legend of the Scholomance, which is a world of despair and self-destruction, where you gain power, but you’re risking your immortal soul. What unifies them in my mind is that it’s insane to go to either school.”
What interested Novik about the Scholomance of legend is that it was never clear why scholars would take that risk. “There has to be some sort of terrible reason. It can’t just be that you want to be powerful, because wanting power is a selfish goal, and you don’t risk death to be selfish. Nobody says ‘I’m going to jump off this cliff to make myself more powerful!’ So what does drive you to a school like this? The folklore doesn’t examine the motivations, but I decided, for my story, the only possible answer was that the alternative was worse.”
The fascinating thing for readers of this series is the ways those alternatives shape the protagonists into conniving, risk-averse manipulators who don’t do anything for free. In their world, magic costs mana, a limited resource that takes hard work to generate. For the series’ protagonist, El, keeping to herself and refusing to form connections with other students is a defensive mechanism against rejection, and a way of shutting out the probability that she herself will die without allies and a protective circle. Even when people reach out to her, she rejects them because she’s so used to being rejected herself.
But A Deadly Education slowly teaches her to drop her defenses and work with others, like the irritating Chosen One type, Orion Lake. Together, they start taking steps to reform the selfish, terror-driven, cynical inner economy of the Scholomance. And as the sequel, The Last Graduate, begins, El finds herself, to her surprise and against her will, acting to protect new students from the maleficaria even at risk to herself, and with nothing to gain. It’s the first step toward a larger plan to save her graduating class from the traditional gauntlet of hungry maleficaria that wait just outside the school gates at graduation time, and usually devour most of the emerging students.
Here’s an exclusive excerpt (and the corresponding clip from the audiobook) from The Last Graduate, as El realizes the events of the prior book have changed her priorities against her will. The book is out now in hardcover and ebook editions.
I was doing my best to let the conversation just be background noise, but it wasn’t working very well. One of the hazards of studying a ridiculous number of languages is that my brain has got the idea that if I don’t understand something I’m hearing, it’s because I’m not paying enough attention, and if I just listen hard enough I’ll somehow be able to divine the meaning. I should have been safe from being hit with another new language for at least a quarter, since the Scholomance had started me on Arabic not three weeks ago, but sitting in a classroom for two hours every Wednesday with a pack of freshmen all speaking Chinese would undoubtedly mean I’d start getting spells in Chinese, too.
Unless they all helpfully got themselves killed before the month was out, which wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility. Usually the first week of term is all right, and then just as the freshmen have been lulled into a state of false calm, the first mals creep out of their hidey-holes, not to mention the first wave of newly hatched ones from the ground floor start to find ways to squirm up here.
Of course, there’s always the occasional overachiever. Like the baby vipersac that quietly worked its way up through the air vent just then. Probably it had stretched itself out skinny and long to get through the wards on the ventilation system, making itself look like a harmless little liquid dribble, and it snaked through the physical grating and coiled itself up on the floor behind one of the bookbags to form back into shape. It would have made some squelching noises in the process, but the freshmen were talking loudly enough to cover for it, and I wasn’t paying very close attention myself, because for once in my life, I was the single worst target in the room by a thousand miles; no mal would pick me out of this crowd. I was already starting to think of the place as some kind of refuge.
Then one of the freshmen saw it and squealed in alarm. I didn’t even bother to look what they were squealing at; I was out of the chair with my bookbag over my shoulder and halfway to the door—the boy had been looking towards the back of the room—before I even spotted the vipersac, hovering already fully inflated over the fourth row of seats like a magenta balloon that someone had Jackson Pollocked with spatters of blue. The blowdart tubes were starting to puff out. The other kids were all screaming and clutching at one another or ducking behind the big desk, a classic mistake: how long were they planning to stay back there? The vipersac wouldn’t be going anywhere with a spread like this, and the instant they stuck their heads out for a peek, it would get them.
That was their problem, of course, and if they didn’t find a solution for it on their own, they weren’t going to make it out of homeroom on their first day of class, which probably meant they weren’t going to last long anyway. It wasn’t even the slightest bit my problem. My problem was that I’d been assigned four highly dangerous seminar classes, and I was already far behind on saving mana for graduation. I was going to need every last minute of my time in this room to build enough mana to make up for all that. I didn’t have so much as a single crochet stitch’s worth of energy to spare on a flock of random freshmen I didn’t care about in the slightest.
Except for one. After I kicked the classroom door open, I did turn back to yell, “Zheng! Out, now,” and he did a U-turn around from the big desk and ran towards me. The other kids might not all have understood me, but they were smart enough to follow him, and most of them were smart enough to abandon their bookbags while they were at it. Except for the enclave girl, of all people. She undoubtedly could have replaced every last thing she was carrying just by hitting up the older kids from her enclave, but she grabbed her bag before coming, so she was bringing up the very end of the pack when the vipersac got inflated enough that its three little eye-stalks popped out and it started turning to track the last of the moving targets. As soon as it took her out, everyone else would get away. It was only a little bigger than a football; that newly hatched, it would probably stop to feed straightaway.
I was right at the doorway and about to go through and save my own neck, exactly as I should have done; exactly as I had done, any number of times before. It’s rule one: the only thing you worry about, in the moments when something goes pear-shaped in here, is how to get yourself out of the way with skin intact. It’s not even selfish. If you start trying to help other people, you get yourself killed and most likely foul whatever they’re doing to save themselves while you’re at it. If you’ve got allies or friends, you can help them beforehand. Share some mana, give them a spell, make them some bit of artifice, a potion they can use in a tight spot. But anyone who can’t survive an attack on their own isn’t going to survive. Everyone knows that, and the only person I’ve ever known to make an exception to the rule is Orion, who’s a complete numpty, which I’m not.
Except I didn’t go through the door. I stayed there next to it and let the entire pack of freshmen go galumphing through ahead of me instead. The vipersac went paler pink as it got ready to shoot Miss Enclave, and then it reoriented itself with a quick jerk towards the door as Orion, speaking of numpties, came bursting through it going the extremely wrong way. Two seconds later, he’d have been full of venom and most likely dead.
Except I was already casting.
The spell I used was a fairly obscure Old English curse. I’m possibly the only one in the world who has it. Early in my sophomore year, right after starting Old English, I stumbled over three seniors cornering a junior girl in the library stacks. Another loser girl, like me, except that boys never tried that sort of thing with me. Something about the aura of future monstrously dark sorceress must put them off. I put the three of them off the other girl just by turning up, even as a scrawny soph. They slunk away, the girl hurried off in the other direction, and I grabbed the first book off the shelf still seething with anger.
So I didn’t get the book I’d been reaching for; instead I came away with a small crumbling sheaf of homemade paper full of handwritten curses some charming beldame had come up with a thousand years ago or so. It opened up in my hands to this particular curse and I looked down and saw it before I slammed it shut and put it back on the shelf.
Most people have to study a spell at length to get it into their head. I do, too, if it’s a useful spell. But if it’s a spell to destroy cities or slaughter armies or torture people horribly—or, for instance, to shrivel up significant parts of a boy’s anatomy into a single agonizingly painful lump—one glance and it’s in there for good.
I’d never used it before, but it worked really effectively in this scenario. The vipersac instantly compressed down to the size of a good healthy acorn. It dropped straight out of the air, rattled on the grating for a moment, and then went down through it like a prize marble vanishing down a sewer drain. And there went my entire morning’s mana with it.
Orion stopped in the doorway and watched it go, deflating himself. He’d been ready to launch some kind of fire blast, which would have taken out the vipersac—and also the three of us, along with any combustible contents of the classroom, since its internal gases were highly flammable. The enclave girl threw me and him a scared-rabbit look and darted out the door past him, even though there wasn’t any reason to run anymore. He looked after her for a moment, then back at me. I took a single depressing look at my dimmed mana crystal—yes, completely dull again—and let it drop. “What are you even doing here?” I said irritably, shoving past him out into the stacks and heading towards the stairs.
“You didn’t come to breakfast,” he said, falling in with me.
That’s how I learned that the bells weren’t audible in the library classroom. Which at the moment meant I could either skip breakfast or turn up late to the first session of my lousiest seminar class, where I would very likely not have the least chance of getting anyone to fill me in on my first assignments.
I ground my jaw and started stomping down the stairs. “Are you okay?” Orion asked after a moment, even though I’d just saved him. He hadn’t quite internalized the idea yet, I suppose.
“No,” I said bitterly. “I’m a numpty.”
Excerpt from THE LAST GRADUATE by Naomi Novik, copyright © 2021 by Naomi Novik. Used by permission of Del Rey, an imprint of Random House Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.