Loved it except for a major plot weakness, felt like a retcon, spoiler in review
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on September 29, 2022
I loved this book except for a majorly weak plot device that totally felt contrived and fake with no build-up or believability at all. There were very casual sex hookups between Leisel and El. This really threw me all the way out of the story. It was so unlike El, so out-of-left field. It felt like a retcon, as if someone told Novik that she had to have more sex or romantic tension in the story, so she threw a couple of gratuitous sex hookups in there. And if she were going to put it in, she should have integrated it into the story better.
This behavior doesn’t match El’s personality or history, not to mention, she doesn’t even like Leisel. Until she went to the Scholomance, El lived in an isolated commune with no friends… her entire life until that point. Until her junior year in the Scholomance, she was totally alone in there: no friends, no allies, no sex. Until Orion. There is absolutely no indication that El was sexually active or anything other than totally devoted to Orion. She is devastated that she left Orion in the Scholomance, all she can think about is Orion, going back to find him, etc. Thoughts of him consume every moment and every decision. She’s been majorly depressed about it. So she pauses to hook up for casual sex with someone she doesn’t even like (not to mention, someone who had tried to kill her previously), while agonizing over Orion with almost every thought? The boy she was going to travel around the world with and build enclaves to save all the wise-gifted children of the world?
El is loyal, kind, ethical to a fault. Strict mana, strict righteousness, strict goodness…. Did I mention loyal unto death? Willing to lay her life down for others… Willing to do whatever it takes to do the right thing. And suddenly she’s not committed, not loyal, not El…
This plot weakness really frustrated me. If you’re going to do it, write it believably. I was so utterly frustrated that it almost ruined the entire story for me. At first, I thought I’d drop one star; but I ended up actually angry that this came across as El cheating on the very recent and very dear memory of Orion. So two stars off it is for this intrusive, basically retcon non-loyal, non-El behavior.
Normally, I’ll plunge right back in and re-read a book like this (I re-read the first two Scholomance novels over the weekend to be ready for the last book), but I’m having to give myself a break to get over the mental whiplash and actual anger caused by this awkwardly-written split personality for El. I can’t even find a word to call it, because it certainly wasn’t love, it wasn’t romance, it was just not up to Novik’s usual writing and story twisting finesse. Very poorly done in the midst of a novel that was absolutely mesmerizing. Too bad. Actually, now that I’ve stopped and thought about it, I’ve gotten upset about it all over again. Just so sloppily done.
And, then, the ending. Really? Did Novak just get depressed or run out of ideas? Until The Golden Enclaves, I would have said this was one of the best series I’d ever read, hands-down. Up there with the best of the best: Diana Wynne Jones, Brandon Sanderson, Lois McMaster Bujold, Garth Nix, etc. Now I’m trying to keep myself from tapping on the delete button.
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