Recent Reading: A Deadly Education / The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Okay! Let’s take a moment to consider every single Unlikeable Protagonist we have ever encountered in SFF. I mean the sort we actually love, not the kind of protagonist we in fact despise.

Let’s put them all on a spectrum from one to ten, like so:

(1) Mildly Unlikeable, I Guess ……………….. (10) EXCEEDINGLY UNLIKEABLE.

Who is your favorite protagonist who’s over toward the (10) end of this spectrum? Until recently, I’d have picked Tremaine Valiarde, or maybe Nicholas Valiarde. Reasons Tremaine is Unlikeable: She’s super pragmatic and ruthless, dangerous when she loses her temper, does not care much about most people, will definitely shoot an enemy if that seems like a practical choice, is not interested in being polite to people she doesn’t like, and so on. Nicholas is like that too, only even more so.

Well, Galadriel Higgins beats both Valiardes, father and daughter, hands down. She is WAY more unlikeable than either Tremaine, who can have reasonable social skills when she cares to use them, or Nicholas, who is quite easy to get along with right up until he taps a hidden lever and an ornate edifice of vengeance slams down around you.

El is just wonderful. As far as I’m concerned, Naomi Novik wins the Most Lovable Unlikeable Protagonist contest, probably for all time.

The first thing Novik did to make this work is create a Doomsday Prophecy about Galadriel – All shall love me and despair, basically – and also give El an aura of evil doom to go with that prophecy so that powerful magical people are (as far as I can tell) instinctively terrified of and repulsed by her. Her mother, a famous white witch, took her to see her father’s family when she was about five and her great-grandmother took one look and flipped out, and ever since then the only person El has ever been close to has been her mother. Her mother has protected her and loved her and gently guided her away from vivisecting small animals, and now here we are, following El through her junior year in a violently homicidal school for wizard kids.

The backstory involving the school and why the kids are there is all very well, but too complicated to go into. The point is that she’s spent her first couple of years being rejected by everybody in the school and pretending as hard as she can that she doesn’t care. It’s not like she doesn’t understand why people don’t like her, either. I mean, the prophecy was clearly true. In this world, everyone powerful has an affinity for a certain kind of spell. These are things like being good with magic related to animals or whatever. El certainly does have an affinity. Hers is for spells of ultimate doom. When she asks for a spell that might light a candle, she’ll get a spell that can create a supervolcano. When she asks for a spell for, say, binding a book in leather, she’ll get a spell for flaying somebody alive and turning their skin into a lovely binding, probably while also turning the agonized skinless person into her mind-controlled slave. And it would probably be loads easier to use that spell on a crowd than on just one person. That’s just how her magic rolls. She could SO EASILY turn into the Dark Queen to end all Dark Queens, and people sense that. This puts her in a tough situation, as she is absolutely determined not to use even the faintest scrap of malia (evil magic) no matter what. In fact, she’s so revolted by the idea of using evil magic that she literally can’t bring herself to do it even when someone stabs her in the gut, which is quite something.

This is how you create a loveable Unlikeable Protagonist: you give her a backstory filled with rejection so that she is super-defensive and furiously hostile. You give her tremendous evil power, which she forces into an utterly different channel and uses for good – even at enormous personal cost. She is violently rude to everyone, unless someone persists and persists and persists and then she is SO GLAD to actually have a real friend, she can hardly believe that’s even possible. Here’s how the first book begins:

I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life. I hadn’t really cared much about him before then one way or another, but I had limits. It would’ve been all right if he’d saved my life some really extraordinary number of times – ten or thirteen or so – thirteen is a number with distinction. Orion Lake, my personal bodyguard; I could have lived with that. But we’d been at the Scholomance almost three years by then, and he hadn’t shown any previous inclination to single me out for special treatment.

Super defensive and furiously hostile. She does not actually attempt to murder Orion, however. Also, spoiler: he does save her life an extraordinary number of times. She also saves his life a lot of times, en route to, well, never mind, I don’t want to provide any actual spoilers here.

You’ll be happy to know, that El does make friends during the first book. Novik handles this really well. Many excellent secondary characters. But El’s most interesting relationship is indeed with Orion Lake, who has a different kind of affinity – he kills monsters – and who is practically worshipped by the whole school as a result. And what Novik does, see, is she uses that hero worship to show how Orion has been and still is treated as badly as El, except in the reverse way. He doesn’t have friends either – he has sycophants. And users, and would-be users, and his life has been as unbearable for him as El’s has been for her, except that El has a wonderful mother who protected her a lot more effectively than Orion’s parents seem to have protected him. He’s therefore drawn to El because she treats him like a real person, even if she does start off violently rude and hostile.

These are fast paced, thoroughly engaging stories. They totally got in the way when I could have been working on Tasmakat, so, well, oops, that’s why I try not to read fiction when I’m seriously working on a book of my own. Anyway, thoroughly engaging. They could be considered high-ish tension, but I get what some of you said about the (extreme) violence in these stories being sort of cartoonish and not nearly as grim as more realistic violence in a more realistic setting. I loved them and I’m glad the final book is out in September. I’ll be right there for it the day it hits the shelves. I should perhaps mention that the second book ends on a cliffhanger. But, hey, September is right around the corner.

There are certainly other good nominees up for the Best YA novel. I liked Catfishing on Catnet and Chaos on Catnet a lot. But I’m definitely putting The Last Graduate in the top spot when I vote for the Hugos. Even if the other entries are good, nobody else is going to do anything as cool as create such a wonderfully unlikeable protagonist. For the rest of time, when Unlikeable Protagonist posts appear, Galadriel Higgins is going to be my pick for the top spot in that list.

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8 thoughts on “Recent Reading: A Deadly Education / The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik”

  1. Alas, book 2 doesn’t quite meet the high bar set by #1. And I keep waiting for Orion to turn into a horrible monster, just as El’s mother expects. (His affinity just *reeks* of malia.)

  2. Yes! I loved these books- loved the characters, the backstory, the secondary characters, all of it. It’s been a pleasure following her writing- that first Tremaraire book was so good, and Uprooted brought me back to reading her, and now this series. I hope the last book doesn’t let us down!

  3. I actually thought Book 2 was just about at the same high level as Book 1. You’re no longer learning about the world, sure, but there are other things that make up for it, and Novik surprised me several times when I though I knew exactly where she was going, but turned out to know only sort of where she was going.

  4. I called the ending of the book pretty early on but was still surprised in the sense that I wasn’t at all sure the author was going to be willing to pull the trigger on it. However, I also didn’t realize at the time there was going to be a sequel. I thought that was the end of the series. Which was satisfying in a way but also a pretty hardcore way to end a series. So in a way I got the best of both worlds – reading it as a series ending, and then getting to reevaluate it as a cliffhanger!

  5. Yes, I think most readers probably saw that last bit coming. Not the exact way it would work out, but the basic idea. But that would have been VERY hardcore! I’m glad there’s a sequel! I actually assumed there would be because to me the series has definitely foreshadowed a plot that takes place outside the school.

  6. I love this breakdown! Super defensive and furiously hostile is El to a T.

    My favorite aspect of these books is how they basically take hogwarts and turn it completely upside down

  7. I agree! That’s some crazy world building. I wonder what it’s like to live in her head?

  8. I bounced pretty hard off the first few chapters of this when I tried it last year, but you might have convinced me to try again. The school was just such an unpleasant place! And I guess I didn’t give El enough time to grow on me.

    (Good job everyone not being spoilery about whatever terrible thing happens at the end of book 2! Now I want to read it just to find out!)

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