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

The Books I Picked & Why

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

By Susanna Clarke

Book cover of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Why 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. 


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All the Birds in the Sky

By Charlie Jane Anders

Book cover of All the Birds in the Sky

Why 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). 


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A Wizard of Earthsea

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Book cover of A Wizard of Earthsea

Why 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.


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Unbecoming

By Lesley Wheeler

Book cover of Unbecoming

Why 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.


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The Once and Future Witches

By Alix E. Harrow

Book cover of The Once and Future Witches

Why 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.


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