I never dreamed about getting a letter to Hogwarts. Not really. Even though I followed Harry throughout Hogwarts when we were the same age, I guess I was happy enough in the present world to not need an escape. I completely understand everyone who did, though. Magic school is a place to reinvent yourself. In books, especially in the Harry Potter series, magic school is life changing for the child or person who felt like they never really fit in. Discovering that you’re magic or special in some way means you get to be a whole new person. You’ve been chosen! Either through hard work, or luck, or just destiny. Most of the time, books with magic schools have a clear delineation with the before – the setting is cold, grey, lifeless, the protagonist feels like they don’t fit in anywhere – and the after. For most people, Harry Potter and Hogwarts was probably one of their first introductions to magic schools – especially if they read it in their youth, like I did. It’s why Hogwarts sticks as much as it does. It’s also probably why Universal Studios, home to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park, saw a huge jump in admission once the Harry Potter Park was built – almost 10 million people visited the Orlando park in 2018. I visited earlier this year and most people were wearing their house robes and brandishing interactive wands, just for a taste of magic.
But I don’t really want to talk about Hogwarts. Because here’s the thing – I can’t really think about the magic of Hogwarts and Harry Potter without thinking of all the people that the series’ author wants to pretend don’t exist, or shouldn’t exist, and definitely wouldn’t be allowed to visit or attend Hogwarts. And while Harry Potter isn’t necessarily just an escapist read, with its themes of authoritarian governments, standing up for your beliefs to your personal detriment, and the many instances of child abuse… it’s still mostly a comforting story of good versus evil, with magic. But even with all these themes of darkness in Harry Potter, it’s the author’s contemporary targeting of a vulnerable community that chills me and stops me from re-reading.
Instead, I’ve made a list of books that also feature magic schools (or, as the database Novelist calls it, Academies of Magic) for you to read if you’re having the same reticence as I am.
When this first came out in 2009, it was often described as a darker, grittier Harry Potter, with university students and all the debauchery that usually goes along with them (at least, in popular culture). The Magicians series has one of my least favourite tropes in Magic School literature (why don’t magic students ever do their homework! Don’t they know how lucky they are to be there??). It also delves into the lives of magicians once they’ve graduated from magic school. What happens when the thing that defines you, and made you special, is over?
I’ve seen this described as “Arya Stark goes to Hogwarts”. Young girls are trained to be killers and assassins by nuns. This series follows Nona Grey through her deadly education, and her subsequent quest to get revenge on the people who wronged her.
This might be a bit of a stretch, seeing as only one of the point-of-view characters in The Fifth Season is attending what I’m calling a ‘magic school’. In The Fifth Season, orogenes are people that have the ability to control the earth. They’re generally reviled by society, even though they are absolutely an essential part of how their society operates. They are educated at, and controlled by, the Fulcrum, and part of this story follows Damaya, a young girl who was recently discovered to be an orogene, and her traumatic experiences at the Fulcrum. There being a group of people with magical abilities who are subjugated and control by authorities is a theme that shows up often in Young Adult fiction – here, Jemisin writes about their experience well, with real pain.
Magic for Liars is a hard-boiled detective novel that just happens to take place at a magical academy. In this novel, Ivy Gamble, a private detective, is a non-magical twin sister to a magic prodigy – and happens to be investigating a murder that occurred at her sister’s place of employment. The magical setting isn’t quite as fleshed out or explored as much as in other novels on this list, but that’s fitting considering the main character isn’t magical either. Instead, read this for the sibling rivalry (and how magical abilities affect that), and the perspective of a character that is thisclose to the magical world, but doesn’t have the ability to infiltrate it.
Less magic schools and more magic… secret societies? In Ninth House, the main character, Alex Stern, is offered a free scholarship to Yale. Given that she doesn’t exactly have the grades to attend – nor did she apply – it’s a suspicious offer! However, it’s made clear that it’s on the stipulation that joins a secret society that monitors other secret societies that use the occult and magic to make rich and powerful men even more powerful. It’s a dark look at the establishment in society, and people who are willing to prey on and subjugate others – and what one woman plans to do about it.