My plan to whittle a few books out of an entirely beyond-my-control TBR heap by picking on the vaguely spooky-themed ones is sort of working. I think this comes under the umbrella of Dark Academia, a sub-genre I know very little about). I bought 'The Last Graduate' as a shiny new hardback, it's been lurking by my bed ever since last year when it came out, and now I've read it just as the final part of the trilogy has landed.
I'm definitely a Naomi Novik fan and she didn't let me down here. I still think that this series possibly belongs in young adult fiction, mostly because of its school setting and young protagonists - but I'm not going to get hung up on it, especially as her characters develop. It picks up immediately after the events of A Deadly Education. We're back in the Scholomance with El and a growing band of friends, the school still seems to be trying to kill her and she's still a bundle of barely contained teenage anger.
Having friends that she cares about is changing El though, she might be just as angry with the system that allows certain kids a better chance of survival (the already privileged ones) but they're becoming people that she cares about, or she's just starting to care about people more - either way there's a lot of growth for her character.
Her insistence that she's destined to be the darkest of dark witches begins to look a little shakey too. I don't want to go overboard on spoilers - the book may have been out almost a year, but whilst it's a moderately popular series it's still got time and room to get a lot bigger - so read on with care, but... It's possible the school hasn't been trying as hard to kill her as she thought, and probably not just for spite. We learn more about Orian and what makes him tick too, and that also gives pause for thought. Why are El and Orian the way they are?
'The Last Graduate' also brings in a few more characters and gives them a chance to shine. Presumably, they're going to be important in book 3, but as El becomes less of an outsider everything goes from black and white to shades of grey. The end is a terrific cliffhanger too, with no obvious way of being resolved, so that's another thing to look forward to in book 3 when the Scholomance kids will erupt into the real world.
The series is still a scathing attack on capitalism, and now more than ever on the benefits of collectivism in the face of both danger and an increasingly uncertain future. The whole message of the book is that to survive we might have to work against our own individual interests for the common good - but that it has to be done willingly, and presented to us as an honest choice.
As a political message, it's not overly subtle, which is another reason it feels like a young adult book to me. But then maybe if you've hit 30 and still can't see why constant selfishness isn't sustainable subtlety is probably wasted on you anyway so maybe Novik is right.
Either way, this is a decent series, entertaining on its own terms, with terrific world-building, and a great main character who manages to be appealing because of her constant bitching, rather than despite it, which is a neat trick to pull off. For an American, Novik also nails British swearing which impresses me too.