Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics. For this latest Top Ten Tuesday participants are given a School Freebie to with what they will. That means its up to me to come up with any sort of list about a school, which left me pretty open to list the best books with one of my favourite settings, a magical school.
I have long had a great love of the magical school setting in fantasy fiction (just check out the name of this blog). In many ways, magical schools are the absolute backbone of some of the better examples of fantasy out there, and who doesn’t love a fun and wonderful story set within the halls of a magical environment. There are so many cool stories and scenarios that can be imagined in these sorts of scenarios, and I have always had an amazing time with these sorts of settings from some of the earliest fantasy books I have read. As such, I thought it only fitting to examine the absolute best examples of this setting here.
In order to appear on this list, the book in question needed to have either a school, academy or university of some description magic is taught or the school itself is magical and fantastic in nature. This school must be a major setting of a descent part of the plot and must feature some sort of magical teaching or some variety of magical education in it. I have been a little lenient in places throughout this list and I have included a few examples where rather than the traditional magical school, you have a bit of an interesting or dark reimagining, which can often be quite fun. I ended up with an interesting collection of books in the end that I was able to whittle down to my top ten. All these books are really fun, and I think that they use their magical school setting extremely well.
The Witches of Eileanan series by Kate Forsyth
All the books in Kate Forsyth’s fantastic The Witches of Eileanan series featured some cool magical learning and school elements in them, and the author sets some impressive storylines around them. However, I would probably recommend the first book in the series, Dragonclaw, as the best example of this magical training. Not only are their multiple scenes of the protagonist learning magic, but it also features a fantastic magical trial scene at her initial place of learning.
Features an interesting ninja school where the participants learn to recover magical items.
Magician by Raymond E Feist
Many of Feist’s Riftwar Cycle books featured a magical school of some description, but nothing compares to the various magical learning scenes that occur in the fantasy classic Magician. The protagonist learns from several schools and teachers in this book before starting the path to create his own magical school.
A fun recent fantasy book that revolves around a fantasy nation where all magicians are captured and leashed so that they aren’t in complete control of their faction. Known as Falcons, these mages are sent to the Mews, where they learn to control their magic for the greater good of the nation. An interesting, if darker, take on the magical school system that worked really well.
Top Ten List:
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
Let’s face it, it would be impossible to write a list about magical schools without featuring the Harry Potter books here. J. K. Rowling created something very special with Hogwarts, and it is now the magical school setting that all others are measured up against, for very good reasons. All seven books in this series used the Hogwarts setting extremely well, from the introduction in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to the epic final battle in Harry Potter in the Deathly Hallows. It is honestly very hard to single out one in particular for their use of the magical school setting, however, if I had to, I would probably go with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, because it had some great scenes where the protagonist took over teaching, as well as the extended sequence with the O.W.L.S test.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss gets a lot of credit from fantasy fans for many of its elements, but one of my favourites is the setting of the University, where the protagonist winds up is as a teenager. The centre of knowledge for this fantasy world, the university teaches many subjects, including various forms of magic, including runic metalworking, sympathy (magic that links one object to another for manipulation), and the ultimate magic, naming, where one calls something’s true name (for example the wind) and takes control of it. This proves to be an exceptional setting for much of this book, and the protagonist spends a substantial amount of time with some great narrative results. While the University is also a major setting of the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, I think that it was used a little better in The Name of the Wind and is one of the better magical school settings out there.
Yeah, there was no chance I wasn’t going to feature a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett here. So many of his books feature the epic and entertaining setting of the Unseen University, where the world’s wizards gather to learn magic and get up to all manner of other shenanigans. Most of the books feature the Unseen University as a setting, however, I’m going to limit myself to two entries on this list, the first of which is Moving Pictures. Moving Pictures is one of the more entertaining Discworld novels Pratchett wrote, and part of the reason is how he utilises the Unseen University in the plot. After several books with a rotating cast of senior wizards, Pratchett settles on a permanent staff for the university in Moving Pictures (helped by the introduction of an unkillable Archchancellor) and starts strongly developing their various members here. There are many brilliant scenes set around the university, especially ones that show the eccentric new Archchancellor setting in and upsetting the delicate wizards with his wild ideas. This book has some of the funniest scenes set in the Unseen University, and this book is a major favourite of mine.
Easily the series that has been featuring magical schools the best recently is the Scholomance books by acclaimed author Naomi Novik. This series in the deadly Scholomance, an automated enchanted school where vulnerable magical teenagers are educated and partially protected from various monsters who want to eat them. Introduced perfectly in the first book, A Deadly Education, you soon get to know all the unique quirks of this fantastic school, as the protagonist tries to survive the lethal lessons, killer fellow students, and multiple monsters living within. I have so much love for the setting in A Deadly Education, and the exquisite story that Novik set around it made it one of my favourite books of 2020. The sequel, The Last Graduate, also featured the school extremely well, but I think that A Deadly Education is the best example for this list.
You can’t be too surprised that I managed to slip a Warhammer novel in here somewhere. Van Horstmann was an awesome Warhammer Fantasy novel that explore the origin and problems of the human magical colleges that sprouted up in the heart of the Empire. In particular, Van Horstmann explores the College of Light through the eyes of enigmatic new student, Egrimm van Horstmann, who has his own nefarious reasons for journeying to the school. This is an excellent and captivating take on the classic magical school setting, as you get to watch this obvious villain learn everything about the school, all so he can gain ultimate power and gain revenge for a past wrong. A very clever Warhammer Fantasy novel that makes perfect use of its magical school setting.
Another great fantasy book from recent years that featured a cool magical university setting is Cold Iron by Miles Cameron. Much the narrative of Cold Iron takes place in The Academy and its surrounding city and follows the protagonist as he excels as a student, while also attempting to unravel a massive conspiracy that threatens the lands. I deeply enjoyed the use of the Academy setting in Cold Iron, and while there is a substantial focus on learning sword work, the character does spend time learning magic, which comes in help during this book. I loved many of the more classic fantasy elements featured in Cold Iron, especially the cool school setting, and this is a must-read book for all fantasy fans.
Homeland by R. A. Salvatore
I had to slip something in from R. A. Salvatore on this list, and naturally that book ended up being one of my favourite Salvatore novels, Homeland. Set in the Drow city of Menzoberranzan, Homeland follows the childhood of Salvatore’s long-running protagonist Drizzt Do’Urden. While there are a lot of excellent settings and locations in, I loved the multiple scenes that take place in the combat school of Melee-Magthere. While technically not a magical school per say, it is filled with dark elves with inherent magical talent, who often use magical techniques to complement their swordcraft, so I think it deserves to be on this list. Personally, I just love the various tournament scenes set in this school, and it was a fantastic and epic setting for this great fantasy book.
Another fantasy book that had a great alternate take on the magical school concept is It Ends in Fire by Andrew Shvarts. Featuring a compelling fantasy world where wizards rule over the non-magical, this book follows a rebellious young magic user who infiltrated the premier magical school, Blackwater Academy, to burn it down from the inside. This was a fun and compelling read with many fantastic homages to Hogwarts, and it was an outstanding book to check out.
Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
The other Discworld book that I had to include here was Hogfather, which makes fun of many aspects of Christmas. While there is a focus on Death and his granddaughter, quite a lot of the book takes place in the Unseen University and shows the eccentric faculty attempting to understand the constant creation of multiple new minor gods around their grounds. The outrageous antics of the senior faculty blends well with the more education focused ambitions of the students, all with the Archchancellor watching on in exasperation. I loved all the university scenes in Hogfather and it was one of the better uses of it in the Discworld series.
The final book I want to include on this list is Eldest by Christopher Paolini, the second book in his Inheritance Cycle. While the first book from Paolini, Eragon, featured a lot of magical tutelage, it didn’t really feature a school setting. The sequel though, Eldest, does, as it shows the protagonist journey to the homeland of the elves to learn magic there. The protagonist spends a substantial chunk of the book there expanding his magical knowledge and skills. While most of this tutelage does occur one-on-one, there is enough alternate teachers and characters to qualify it as a magic school in my mind, and I feel that Paolini did a great job introducing it and using it to expand the character’s knowledge. An overall epic book that made really great use of the magic school concept.
Well, that’s the end of this latest list. As you can see there are some great books out there that feature a fun magical school concept in their plot. It is no surprise that many of my favourite books of all time feature a magical school in some capacity and there are so many exceptional stories that can be set around it. All the above books come very highly recommended and if you love magical schools, all of them are worth checking out.