When I picked up The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani, I was instantly intrigued and entertained. I said as much in my original review for this novel, and I was eager to read the rest of the trilogy, A World Without Princes and The Last Ever After. I had to wait a short while for that last one to come out, but now I’ve read all three, I’d say the entire series is worth reviewing as a whole.
I try to skate around the major spoilers, but, of course, Spoiler Alert!
All in all, I have some rather mixed feelings about this series. On the one hand, it’s a thrilling fairy tale involving true love, overcoming evil, finding peace within oneself, great battles, etc. On the other hand, I feel like the first novel made some promises, and the final novel failed to deliver on some of those promises. I want to make it clear, upfront, that I enjoyed these novels immensely, and I will enjoy rereading them in the future. But to explain what I found lacking is going to take much more space than what I loved, simply because what was good was so simple. What was lacking is a bit more involved.
It’s a tad imbalanced and even unfair, but so is life.
The story is very intellectual in several ways. Across these three novels, we see the true and false divisions between Good and Evil, Male and Female (they say “Boy and Girl” in the novels), Old and New. Sometimes Chainani’s novels do justice to these discussions, and sometimes they don’t.
In the first novel, for instance, we delved into the what makes a person Good or Evil, the dichotomy of which runs throughout the whole of the series. It was a journey which the whole School could learn from, especially in regards to the value of balance.
The second novel, exploring the conflict between genders, seemed fairly light on such a discussion. It showed the value of balance and cooperation between the two, but more indirectly, just by showing what happens when they don’t. We have two sides itching for war, and the result is terrible suffering. To add insult to that injury, this conflict is rooted in the manipulations of a liar, who, poetically, is just a pawn in the machinations of another liar. Still, there weren’t really any answers, or balance, found between the two sides, which was a shame.
The third novel has a running theme of the conflict between generations, the fading Old and the fresh New, but it’s mostly the final, apocalyptic conclusion to a long-running war between Good and Evil. The “Old and New” conflict is just background, albeit one that quietly influences what happens at the forefront of the story. This story is really about the choice between what is Good and what is Evil.
That conflict loses a great deal of the subtleties it once had, breaking its own rules in the process and getting both simpler and more convoluted. A lot of fairy tales are taken in a whole new direction, with entirely new interpretations and twists, many of them having ended on a good note before things later went sour for everyone involved. As such, Last Ever After dealt very much with endings, and what it takes to find a happy one.
Personally, I was hoping at least one moral of the story would be, “There is no permanent, immutable Ever After. You will always have to work at it.” That proved a futile hope, but there is still a clear lesson here: Of all the stories that go wrong, all of them are because a person looked outward for their happy ending, instead of first finding the peace of one within.
And yet, even that was not done proper justice to! It is the central hinge on which this story finally turns, yet we don’t see it happen!
Relating to that, throughout these three novels, there has been a love triangle. Again and again, we come back to the relationship between the three main characters: Agatha, Sophie, and Tedros. First, Tedros and Sophie thought they were meant for each other at first, but it was Agatha who proved to be this prince’s true princess. Then Sophie tried to hold onto Agatha and shove Tedros out of the picture, but that came back to bite everyone. Now, Agatha has to wrestle with her self-doubt, her fear that she is not the right material for a future queen, while Sophie is trying to be happy with the wrong person because she believes she can’t be with the right one, and Tedros is trying to find his own happiness amidst his love and his duties, and this mixture puts them all right back where they began: in a triangle.
Yet, for three out of three main characters, we don’t see any of their defining epiphanies. Tedros goes off into a cave to think, and we don’t see a moment of it or of what precedes his final decision. We see Agatha plagued by self-doubt, and we do not see the moment she overcomes it, she’s just suddenly past it somehow. And we only see Sophie’s moment from the outside, when she finally makes the right choice in the last climax of the series. For a series that featured such introspective, thoughtful, and eloquent characters as these three, and for showing us their defining moments in the two previous novels, not seeing their defining moments in the conclusion, when they each found happiness within themselves at long last… well, it was rather disappointing, not knowing what they’re thinking and feeling and realizing and deciding.
Finally, I was hoping from early in the first novel that the series would end with the destruction of the School for Good and Evil. It’s an unbelievably cruel system put in place to churn out new fairy tales, often entirely against the will of its students, most of whom suffer truly terrible fates sooner or later, either before, during, or after the fairy tale in which they are featured. It really needed destroying, I thought, and to go through all the crises of this trilogy only to end up right back at the School in question, put back to the way it was before, with someone talking about how they’ve all learned that the School must endure (which I, for one, did not learn on any level whatsoever) was… well, quite a let-down.
It was good to see Agatha and Tedros happy together, and good to see Sophie happy at last without needing everything she thought she needed to be happy, but it all still felt very lackluster at the end.
All of that said, I very much enjoyed most of the story overall. The plot was intriguing, the action was suspenseful, the characters were lovable, and the conflict between them was compelling. I love each of the three witches, Hester, Anadil, and Dot, and Hort the young wolf-man is easily among my favorites. The wizard Merlin had a certain madness to his method, which I enjoyed. I loved the moment when Tedros and his mother Guinevere reconciled. (yes, he is the legitimate son of King Arthur) For all the misery that our classic heroes and heroines have endured since their fairy tales ended, there is a humanity to them, and we’re able to see a more human element to their stories as well. And since all of these tragedies occurred because of one old evil which has now been vanquished, the Old tragedies are finally able to be broken, to give hope for New Ever Afters.
I could go on. There is a great deal for which I can recommend these books. But, as thrilling as Chainani’s extended fairy tale is, I do feel very much that this series builds up a great deal, and then trips at the finish line. It’s good, and worth reading, but it could have been great!
My final rating for this entire trilogy is 8 stars out of 10.
Which, you will note, is quite good. I’m just disappointed because I was expecting a better argument, in the end, for ten out of ten, and an A-plus!