Many fantasy fans these days likely have some understandably mixed feelings about stories set in magical boarding schools. After all, rightly or wrongly, most of them still exist in the shadow of the Harry Potter franchise, and given everything that has happened in the real world since that fictional one concluded, well. Let’s just say it’s not a surprise that a lot of people have decided to simply read other things.
Yet, if there is any series worth dipping your toe pack into this particular subgenre for, it is Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy, a compelling and morally complex saga about a magical school that trains up young witches and wizards by requiring them to fight for their lives from the moment they arrive. Full of monstrous creatures (known as “mals”) constantly trying to eat them alive on their way to class, the students must make uncomfortable, often class-based compromises to live until graduation, as the rich kids with better access to power and weapons take advantage of the less fortunate and the kids who don’t come from established enclaves make all manner of moral trade-offs to survive.
The story follows Galadriel “El” Higgins, a tremendously powerful sorceress with an affinity for world-destroying dark magic who’s spent her school career fighting her worst impulses—and at times the school itself—to choose the path of light. As the series’ third and final installment, The Golden Enclaves, begins, El has achieved her ultimate goal. She’s not only fought her way out of the Scholomance, but she also got her entire class out with her when over half of them should have died and killed half the mals in the known world at the same time. But she had to leave the boy she loved behind to do so, and she now wakes up every day knowing that do-gooder Orion Lake is most likely being eternally devoured by a maw-mouth (a particularly horrifying creature that traps its victims in an endless cycle of death).
El’s determination to end his suffering will see her embark on a journey to renter the Scholomance, but in order to succeed, she’ll need allies. And not just her friends from school either, but help from some of the most powerful wizarding enclaves in the world. But in order to gain access to their power, she’ll have to help them first, a difficult task when two of the most powerful enclaves are already on the brink of war and several smaller ones have already been destroyed by a mysterious and unknown maleficer (a.k.a. a wizard who uses dark magic).
Her journey is a complicated one that takes her around the world to enclaves in multiple other countries and forces El to confront many uncomfortable truths along the way—about herself, her family, the prophecy that has shaped so much of her life, and even the very foundations that hold up the wizarding world itself. Ostensibly, the Scholomance was meant to “protect all the wise-gifted children of the world” and the slow revelation of all the ways it has failed to do just—may have been purposely created to fail, in fact—that are horrifying to behold. The exploration of the politics and cultures in other enclaves, from dominant New York with its seemingly bottomless well of power to ancient London, built on the bones of so many who have come before, is fascinating and goes to show how rich and expansive this world that Novik has created actually is.
As a heroine, El is often prickly and difficult, frequently rude and openly resentful of the situation she has found herself in and scornful toward those who have been given much but of whom is often expected little. Yet, her evolution over the course of this series and her transformation into exactly the kind of heroine she would have always insisted she could never become is deeply satisfying and meaningful. As readers, we’ve always known that her family’s dark prophecy could come to pass and El was never going to become a dark sorceress bringing the world to heel even if she had the power to do so.. But it’s incredibly awesome to watch El herself finally realize it too and recognize that goodness isn’t an innate state of being or an easy gift that some possess but others do not. It’s a choice you must make day after day and it’s not something you are, it’s something you do. And i’s hard, yes, but that’s the point. That’s what makes it worth it.
Unlike so many stories that have come before it, there are no easy answers in The Golden Enclaves. Everyone is complicit to some degree in the damaging choices that have built the world they’re living in and even the happy endings in this story come with bittersweet sacrifices attached. But the tale is full of clever twists and meaningful resolutions to almost every major character’s arc, some that pay off groundwork laid hundreds of pages prior. Most importantly, this final installment ultimately embraces a larger message of hope and resilience, one that says there’s nothing we’ve done that’s so bad we can’t fix it—if we all simply choose to find a better way together and refuse to give up on each other. I’m not sure that there’s a more appropriate moment to put that kind of call to action out in the world than right now.
A rich, fully satisfying conclusion that makes the whole trilogy stronger and more meaningful in retrospect.
The Golden Enclaves
is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.