Okay, so, I didn’t get anything done yesterday because I read the rest of The Golden Enclaves instead. It’s excellent! A great ending for a fantastic trilogy. I’m just filled with admiration for what Novik achieved in this series, so I thought I’d take a stab at talking about that without revealing any important spoilers. I think this is possible! Let’s see if I can do it.
So, what did Naomi Novik really handle excellently in this trilogy?
A) Wonderful voice. The protagonist, El — Galadriel Higgins — has a highly distinctive voice. This story is told in an interesting way; it’s sort of contemporary fantasy, close enough that El’s syntax and locution are thoroughly modern, even though we barely see the mundane world at all. This gives El an opportunity for sarcasm and snark. You can pull that off in an SF setting with slang that is quite different from modern slang, as Eluki bes Shahar showed, for example, but you can’t really do it in high fantasy. This style suits both El and the story perfectly. The books are funny even though they are also grim, edging into horror. They’re much, much easier to read than an equally dark story told in a less sarcastic voice.
B) Amazing unlikeable characters. There’s El herself, who is the quintessential example of a fantastically likeable unlikeable protagonist. And! Bonus! There are a ton of other unlikeable characters who are all different from El and different from each other. This trilogy could be used, and should be used, to illustrate how to do unlikeable characters who are splendidly likeable. El is so sympathetic because she’s been badly hurt and this has means that she’s simmering with rage and has a massive self-protective chip on her shoulder, so the reader wants to sympathize with her, plus she’s amazingly self-sacrificing and pours all her efforts into saving people even when it’s really, really hard for her. And Novik makes all that believable.
Then we have Liesel. Wow, she’s so unlikeable! I just love her and I’m delighted she got a big role in the third book. I have SUCH a soft spot for focused, ruthless practicality. It’s hard to write a really intelligent character, but here she is. It’s not just that everyone in the book acts like Liesel is a genius. She really is a genius. She’s so much fun! And nicer underneath than one might think at first. Novik signals that by having her in a relationship with Alfie, who is genuinely nice. That’s a practical choice for Liesel, but do you think for one instant she couldn’t have used someone vicious if she’d wanted to? No, part of the reason she picked out Alfie is because he really is nice. I’m sure that’s true, even though Novik didn’t (quite) come out and say so.
C) Fantastic use of foreshadowing. The whole story ties together amazingly well, even though I don’t think you can see many of the most important elements coming. After reading this trilogy, you can sit down and lay out the plot elements that are important and look at where they first appeared and how the characters viewed those elements. Then trace where those elements turn up and rate how important they are at every step of the way. Then look how they all lock together as the third book moves toward the conclusion. This is REALLY well done. Plus the ultimate resolution is strongly foreshadowed, yet hard to see coming. It’s just stunning.
D) Use of tension. Wow. I mean throughout, though I’m also thinking specifically of the climactic scenes. It’s tough because by then El is SO POWERFUL, but the resolution isn’t about that; or rather, it kind of is about that, but power isn’t what brings about the resolution. But before that, long before the climax, through the whole story, Novik shows just a masterful use of tension. This series could be laid out with the Hunger Games to look at tension — how to develop, maintain, use, and resolve tension — but as far as I’m concerned, this trilogy is very much to be preferred. There are certain elements both stories have in common, but I greatly prefer the way every single one of those elements is handled here. That’s true even though I liked and admired the Hunger Games trilogy in many ways. I doubt I’ll ever re-read that trilogy. This is a trilogy that I will re-read with great pleasure.
E) The world wind up in a (much) better place and heading in a (much) better direction. So do all the characters we care about. You can watch all those elements click into place as well. This is something I expected, and even though I admit Novik made me worry for a few pages now and then, I wasn’t at all surprised at the larger elements of the resolution. Except Novik went farther in shoving various elements into better positions than I expected, and I loved that. I’m trying not to spoil certain things here. Let me see. All right, I think I can say this: I appreciated seeing certain things that happened in the past in a different light, and I appreciated that Novik didn’t make those things unimportant or okay, yet still managed to set them into a better position at the end.
Here is an element of “winding up in a better place” that I think I can talk about more explicitly. I love, love, LOVE how so many classmates from the Scholomance wind up supporting El at one time or another as the events in the third book unfold. This is just … I don’t know how to put it. It’s a deep redemptive arc laid below all sorts of more important events. It’s a redemptive arc that addresses all the dislike and suspicion El has always endured. Through this story, many of those classmates move to support El even when that’s hard and dangerous. It’s wonderful.
Novik didn’t have to do that. The story would have worked almost as well without that, and doing this made her pick up so many minor characters and work them back into this story. I’m so glad she did that. This element pulls so much together and shoves the whole world more clearly and firmly in a good direction.
This isn’t just one of my favorite books of the year, this is one of my all-time favorite fantasy stories period. I’m putting it way above Uprooted and Temeraire, even though I liked both of those books quite a bit. I think Novik pulled off the ending FAR better here than in Uprooted, and maintained tension and interest and coherence of the story FAR better here than in the Temeraire series. I can’t think of a single thing I would have liked Novik to do differently in the Scholomance trilogy. This is just a stunning work. I would really wish I’d written it myself, except reading it was such a tremendous pleasure.