The best fantasy novels about learning magic (that don’t feature Harry Potter)

Why am I passionate about this?

When I was ten, I found a book on witchcraft on the shelves of my local bookstore and eagerly set out to learn how to practice magic. I had very little success—one rain spell maybe worked, but to be honest, rain was in the forecast anyway. So instead I became a novelist who likes to write about people who can do magic. I love books that not only sweep you into other worlds but show you how it really feels to live there. I hope these five novels give you a truly magical escape. 


I wrote...

Book cover of The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic

What is my book about?

Emily Croy Barker’s enchanting debut novel offers an intelligent escape into a richly imagined world. With an appealing female protagonist, cinematic storytelling, wry humor, and clever literary references, The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic has captured the imaginations of readers everywhere.

During a miserable weekend at a friend’s wedding, eager to forget about her disastrous breakup and stalled dissertation, Nora Fischer wanders off and somehow finds herself in another realm. There, she meets glamorous Ilissa—who introduces Nora to a decadent new world—and her devastatingly handsome son, Raclin. But when the elegant veneer of this dreamland shatters, Nora finds herself in a fairy tale gone incredibly wrong. And the only way she can survive is by learning magic herself.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Emily Croy Barker Why did I love this book?

I can’t resist a good alternative history novel. This is a book you can and should get lost in. I love the world that Susanna Clarke creates, a Napoleonic War-era England where magic is a subject only for historians until the two title characters revive it, teaching themselves to become the first real English magicians in hundreds of years. Clarke makes magic entirely convincing by having her characters conduct passionate scholarly arguments over spells, and by exploring the tension between the magic learned from books and the wild magic of this and other worlds. Her writing is devilishly brilliant, pitch-perfect in its Austenian restraint and wit. A funny, spooky, exciting novel. 

By Susanna Clarke,

Why should I read it?

22 authors picked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me The year is 1806. England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation's past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of…


Book cover of All the Birds in the Sky

Emily Croy Barker Why did I love this book?

I picked up this novel on impulse at a bookstore, and from the first page I fell in love with its clever, quirky blend of science fiction and fantasy. Two misfits, childhood friends, grow up to become a witch and a tech geek, respectively. Their slow-burn romance runs into problems as they both have to respond—in very different ways—to a gathering climate crisis. I adore the way Charlie Jane Anders writes about both magic and not-yet-invented technology with equal aplomb (but gives magic the last word). 

By Charlie Jane Anders,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked All the Birds in the Sky as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF BEST NOVEL IN 2016 NEBULA AWARDSFINALIST FOR BEST NOVEL IN THE 2017 HUGO AWARDSPatricia is a witch who can communicate with animals. Laurence is a mad scientist and inventor of the two-second time machine. As teenagers they gravitate towards one another, sharing in the horrors of growing up weird, but their lives take different paths...When they meet again as adults, Laurence is an engineering genius trying to save the world-and live up to his reputation-in near-future San Francisco. Meanwhile, Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the magically gifted, working hard to prove herself…


Book cover of A Wizard of Earthsea

Emily Croy Barker Why did I love this book?

As a boy, Ged accidentally releases a dark force that shadows him throughout his magical education; as a young wizard, he sets out on a quest to meet and destroy it. When Ursula Le Guin published this novel in the 1960s, she quietly subverted many then-prevalent conventions of fantasy—making her protagonist a person of color, building a plot that didn’t revolve around violence. Personally, I wish she’d gone even further by creating more interesting female characters. That said, this book is a seminal work that explores the limitations of magic, and shows how magic can reveal character in a novel. I also admire the way LeGuin builds a realistic world through the slow accumulation of detail and lore; her simple but vivid prose just blows me away.

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Why should I read it?

18 authors picked A Wizard of Earthsea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

The first book of Earthsea in a beautiful hardback edition. Complete the collection with The Tombs of Atuan, The Furthest Shore and Tehanu

With illustrations from Charles Vess

'[This] trilogy made me look at the world in a new way, imbued everything with a magic that was so much deeper than the magic I'd encountered before then. This was a magic of words, a magic of true speaking' Neil Gaiman

'Drink this magic up. Drown in it. Dream it' David Mitchell

Ged, the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, was called Sparrowhawk in his reckless youth.

Hungry for power and knowledge,…


Book cover of Unbecoming

Emily Croy Barker Why did I love this book?

Cynthia, a forty-something English professor in the throes of perimenopause, develops unusual abilities and slowly learns to channel them, with help from a visiting faculty member from Faerie. I was lucky enough to read this book in an early draft, and then in its final version. What I love about this novel is how it treats magic as yet another weird thing that happens to you as you get older. I also relished watching Cynthia figure out her new powers in the context of ordinary life: navigating faculty politics, being a mom, working on her marriage. A smart, wry twist on the School for Magic trope.

By Lesley Wheeler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Unbecoming as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What if women gained uncanny power at middle age? In Unbecoming, Cyn's family is shattering, and she is at war with her own body. Then, when her best friend flies off on a mysterious faculty exchange program, a glamorous stranger takes her place--Fee Ellis, a Welsh poet who make it all look easy. But it may be costly to welcome this charismatic outsider to their little college town. Cyn's best friend, meanwhile, communicates only in ominous fragments.


Book cover of The Once and Future Witches

Emily Croy Barker Why did I love this book?

Did I mention that I am a sucker for alternative histories? This one takes place in a nineteenth-century America where both witchcraft and women’s rights are ruthlessly suppressed, but three sisters, all witches, are working to revive magic by tracking down forgotten spells. I found this novel much scarier than many fantasy novels because, well, the authorities’ efforts to keep women in line felt all too true to life. The relationships among the sisters are thorny, warm, and satisfyingly complex, and Alix Harrow’s rich, evocative language makes their magic powerfully real.

By Alix E. Harrow,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Once and Future Witches as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

'Glorious . . . a tale that will sweep you away' Yangsze Choo, New York Times bestselling author of The Night Tiger

'A gorgeous and thrilling paean to the ferocious power of women' Laini Taylor, New York Times bestselling author of Strange the Dreamer

In 1893, there's no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when…


You might also like...

Returning to Eden

By Rebecca Hartt,

Book cover of Returning to Eden

Rebecca Hartt Author Of Rising From Ashes

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Idealistic Storyteller Teacher Mother Seeker

Rebecca's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Looking for clean romantic suspense with spiritual undertones?

Look no further than the Acts of Valor series by Rebecca Hartt. With thousands of reviews and 4.7-5.0 stars per book, this 6-book series is a must-read for readers searching for memorable, well-told stories by an award-winning author.

A dead man stands on her doorstep.

When the Navy wrote off her MIA husband as dead, Eden came to terms with being a widow. But now, her Navy SEAL husband is staring her in the face. Eden knows she should be over-the-moon, but she isn’t.

Diagnosed with PTSD and amnesia, Navy SEAL Jonah Mills has no recollection of their fractured marriage, no memory of Eden nor her fourteen-year-old daughter. Still, he feels a connection to both.

Unfit for active duty and assigned to therapy, Jonah knows he has work to do and relies on God, who sustained him during captivity, to heal his mind, body, and hopefully his family.

But as the memories lurking in his wife's haunted eyes and behind his daughter's uncertain smile begin to return to him, Jonah makes another discovery. There is treachery in the highest ranks of his Team, treachery that not only threatens him but places his new-found family in its crosshairs.

Returning to Eden

By Rebecca Hartt,

What is this book about?

Presumed Dead, Navy SEAL Returns Without Memory of His Ordeal in the Christian Romantic Suspense, Returning to Eden, by Rebecca Hartt

-- Present Day, Virginia Beach, Virginia --

A dead man stands at Eden Mills' door.

Declared MIA a year prior, the Navy wrote him off as dead. Now, Eden's husband, Navy SEAL Jonah Mills has returned after three years to disrupt her tranquility. Diagnosed with PTSD and amnesia, he has no recollection of their marriage or their fourteen-year-old step-daughter. Still, Eden accepts her obligation to nurse Jonah back to health while secretly longing to regain her freedom, despite the…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in witches, magic-supernatural, and middle-aged women?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about witches, magic-supernatural, and middle-aged women.

Witches Explore 135 books about witches
Magic-Supernatural Explore 613 books about magic-supernatural
Middle-Aged Women Explore 22 books about middle-aged women