The Scholomance Trilogy: What did Naomi Novik Do Right?

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.

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30 thoughts on “The Scholomance Trilogy: What did Naomi Novik Do Right?”

  1. It occurs to me that Kaziah fits your requirements for an unlikable sympathetic character. So do a number of other black wolves, but Kaaziah sticks out because she reminds me a bit of Liesel. (Ambitious, deliberately scary, looks for angles.)
    Also: molletes misspelled in BDSS 1:
    Probably Cassie would like American-style sandwiches better than moletes anyway. There were big rolls in the freezer.

  2. I haven’t read book 2 yet because I glanced at reviews that screamed about the twist cliffhanger in the last sentence, so I’ve been holding it until book 3 came out. I can’t wait to read them. The first book was so amazing. Glad to hear you liked the conclusion so much. That’s encouraging!

  3. This was an amazing trilogy. It always went in different ways than I expected.

    You mentioned that you read Temeraire and Uprooted. Did you ever read Spinning Silver? I thought that was her best work until these books.

  4. Irina–
    Try it. It never actually crosses the line. There are very few onscreen deaths; all the gore is from monster guts.

  5. I enjoyed the first temeraire book, but was less enthralled with the subsequent books – do things pick up again?

  6. Robert, no, I’ve never read Spinning Silver. I guess I should pick it up and try to get to it!

    Mona, I was trying to think about whether the Scholomance trilogy counted as positive or uplit fantasy (no) and why not. I think you’re right. That’s the reason. The underlying society is horrible in too many ways and that horribleness is too close to the surface all through the trilogy, so for me, it’s a fantastic trilogy and I loved it, but I wouldn’t say it belongs in the specific subgenre of Positive Fantasy.

    Irina, at the same time, I agree with Pete. You might try it. There are so many things to love about this trilogy, and the horror is mostly underneath enough to be tolerable in a way it wouldn’t be with a different style.

  7. SarahZ, I loved the first Temeraire book, but was so underwhelmed as the series went on that I never finished it myself.

  8. Just finished it on my walk this morning. Really good. And as you say, I spent a lot of the book reevaluating stuff from the first books. I rarely reread books, but I might take another spin through the trilogy to see all the threads and foreshadowing with different eyes.

  9. Also agree this is not UpLit. It’s good people operating in a grim world, and there is hope for things to get better, but it’s a pretty grim world. Not in an in-your-face kind of way, though. Still, it’s sufficiently positive and good that I’d recommend it even to people who absolutely hate grimdark.

  10. I re-read all the time, for different reasons, but one is to enjoy the foreshadowing now that I know where the book is going.

    And I agree, this is the opposite of grimdark, even though lots of it is quite grim. Come back in twenty years and things will be so much better for EVERYONE. In fact, I’d love to read a long epilogue in this world, set about that far in the future.

  11. Yes!
    This series cries out for an epilogue novella. And with Orion’s mother in charge of NYC enclave, there is still room for dramatic tension. (Pretty much anything else I say would be spoilers. Even saying “reread for foreshadowing is a little spoil-y.)

    (Spellcheck wants “epilog”, but I hate that abbreviation.)

  12. I agree, “epilogue” is correct and spellcheck is wrong.

    I also agree about Ophelia! Wow, yes, the whole plot of another novel or series of novels just wrote itself in my head. I would LOVE to see a series with that source of conflict.

    I don’t think there’s any way to see certain big things coming, no matter how much people rave about foreshadowing.

  13. Okay, okay, fine, I will try this series again! I started it way back when book 1 came out and I had loved Spinning Silver so much I was eager for more Novik, and I bounced hard off the world and the premise and even the main character. People have been raving about the series all along, and I keep thinking, “but that world: why would I want to spend any time there?”

    Thanks for being spoilery about the mood and themes, because now I think I could probably handle the grimness, knowing it ends positively and with redemptive arcs for people.

  14. I hope you’ll love it once you go into it with different expectations, Kim! I think you will.

  15. Oh I super agree with your spoiler free review! I couldn’t read the first one through the first time, but then once I did I loved so much about it that I kept rereading it. Now that the trilogy is complete I have an intensely deep appreciation for the foreshadowing that we never barely had a hint of, no teasers, so that we were learning in real time with El. That was so well done. True it’s not exactly uplit, but the last book was very uplifting to me.

  16. Yen, yes, it is! It’s so clear that the world is going to improve tremendously. I very much agree with Pete that I’d love to return to this world, that working out the problem that Ophelia represents would be a good next step.

  17. Also loved the Scholomance series. I am amazed by how fast paced The Golden Enclaves was.
    I feel like there were 5 (maybe more?) events in the book that could have been _the_ climactic event in a different book. Also amazed that what I though was going to be the main plotline of the book turned out not to be what the book was about at all.

    But — Spinning Silver is still my favorite Novik novel.

  18. I guess I’m going to have to move Spinning Silver to the actual top of the TBR pile, and thanks to those of you giving it a push upward!

  19. I liked Uprooted more than Spinning Silver, and I agree with Rachel that while the first Tremaraire book was terrific the rest of the series devolved into unreadable territory. Every time I try to go back and finish I get trapped in that desert.

  20. I loved Uprooted, and have reread it more than once. I didn’t finish Spinning Silver, probably because I just wasn’t in the right mood, but I still don’t think it’s as good a book as Uprooted.

    I just finished the Golden Enclaves. I agree it’s a good book with great characters, well plotted, with a positive ending. Unfortunately, what stuck in my mind after it was over was the torture scene. The malmouth revelation was the central problem the book was built around, so there was no thinking about the book without that coming back to my mind. A warning for others out there sensitive to this kind of thing. I’m not sure if I’ll reread the last book like I did the first two, even though I really liked the book otherwise. If I do, I’ll go in braced and skip over that part.

  21. It’s going to depend of course on exactly what each reader finds tolerable. I found the outrage wrapped around that scene was enough to carry me through it — especially with — never mind, I better not say too much.

  22. Exactly, everyone has their own tolerance level. Mine has shifted over the many years I’ve been reading fantasy. Fantasy seems to give authors the most scope for imagining the very most evil things people can do to eachother. Even in an otherwise positive book, the horror the protagonist is fighting is often unnecessarily off the charts. I’ve learned to tolerate it in most cases, but when it gets personal, and the author does a “good” job of making the reader really involved in it, then it does still disturb me.

    On that topic, I want to say that I really appreciate how you handle evil in the Black Dog books, Rachel. The horror is real, and we are really invested in wanting the heroes to overcome it, but you never take us so close in such a way that it truly disturbs me. My take aways from those books are positive. The good guys suffer sometimes (especially poor Keziah and Ezekial), but the suffering does not overshadow the overall impression of them struggling and growing and Winning.

  23. Melanie, you make a really good point about the violence and evil in Black Dog never overshadowing the forward progress of the good guys toward greater good. I often tell people I can’t handle too much gore and horror, and then I remember all the bellies slashed and spines ripped out and wonder why I’m not completely turned off by the Black Dog books (why, in fact, I cheer when some people’s heads get torn off!). I think that in-world we are shown a clear moral system that makes sense and that the main characters do their best to adhere to, and the good guys always have just enough creativity, fortitude, magic and skill to defeat the really icky bad guys (who are just icky enough to make us want their heads to get torn off, but we don’t dwell in the ick).

    I find it interesting how many people like either Uprooted or Spinning Silver but not both. I loved both (Spinning Silver a bit more), but I think I can see that they appeal to slightly different audiences. Also, there are plot elements in each of them that people object to, and depending on which element you object to, you will dislike one or the other.

  24. I know that some people find the Black Dog books have moved too close to horror for their personal taste. I do try to express horrific things without dwelling too much on the details. And yes, when someone is awful enough, I personally cheer when his head gets ripped off, so I hope readers will mostly feel the same way!

  25. Kim, I liked both Uprooted and Spinning Silver, although definitely Spinning Silver more. (Spinning Silver actually started out as a short story, so if anyone is unsure whether they would like the novel maybe read that first?)

    I think Miryem (the protagonist from Spinning Silver) is actually a lot like El. They are neither of them particularly nice — probably because of what they have gone through in their life — but they never fail to be kind. (That’s a Doctor Who reference for those who watch that!) I like Miryem just a bit more though, because while El has all this crazy “tertiary entity” powers, the only superpowers Miryrem has are her wits and her grit….

  26. Really beautifully written review and you articulated a few points that I’d felt were true but never quite managed to put into words. So thank you and well done. Oh, and I LOVE this trilogy. Obviously.

  27. Thank you, AmyLynn! I sometimes figure out exactly what I think of a book by writing a review. I knew I loved this trilogy, but many things about why came into focus when I wrote this.

  28. Yes, that was a good spoiler-free review! I read a comment here, right when the last book came out but before I’d finished it, that threw a major spoiler at me about Orion. I was shocked and wasn’t sure I wanted to finish the book. I should’ve trusted Novik more.

    Interesting that so many people liked Spinning Silver. That’s my least favorite of her books, specifically because the heroine was so unlikeable. I’m impressed Novik was able to pull off a likeable/unlikeable character in El.

    And almost anything can be turned into a positive. I saw Knives Out in a theater, and people cheered and applauded when the heroine vomited. (Which sounds really weird if you haven’t seen the movie.)

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