The best fantasy novels with magical schools

The Books I Picked & Why

A Deadly Education

By Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education

Why this book?

In Naomi Novik’s dark fantasy world, wizarding adolescents are the perfect prey for all the things that go bump in the night: they’re just coming into their power—mana, in Novik’s world—and they don’t have the skills to protect themselves effectively yet. So the greatest minds of the wizarding world create the Scholomance, a school that exists in its own kind of reality, where the kids are portaled in when they enter puberty and don’t leave for four years, and the teachers are enchanted libraries…and the numerous magical monsters that manage to make it through the wards around the school. The main character, Galadriel, is not only focused on survival, but also not giving in to her immense power and talent for destruction.

I loved this book because Novik writes evocatively and transports the reader into the chilling world of the Scholomance. There are elements that evoke a steampunk aesthetic and those that create a more classic fantasy feel. Galadriel’s journey takes all the worst and best parts of high school and college and smashes them full force into an engaging dark fantasy that’s equal parts Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. (I lost track of the body count by the end, honesty, so if you’re squeamish about losing characters it might not be for you.)

I enjoyed following El’s transformation from outcast to slowly finding her purpose and her group of friends and realizing that what she viewed as her “weird” talents are actually a strength after all. As a creative writer, high school definitely wasn’t the best time of my life, so I found value in relating to El’s struggle and reflecting on my own journey.


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Carry On

By Rainbow Rowell

Carry On

Why this book?

I have to admit, I didn’t immediately fall in love with Rowell’s take on “the Chosen One” story, but after a few chapters I realized that Rowell writes tongue-in-cheek, winking at the reader who’s reread Harry Potter half a dozen times, acknowledging the tropes of the magical-school-Chosen-One subgenre while placing the relatable human experiences of her characters at the center of her novel. While the first book feels like a continuation of a series that doesn’t exist before Carry On, I had fun putting together the pieces of the past narrative. Simon Snow was plucked from foster care by the Mage, the elected leader of the wizarding world, and attends Watford School of Magicks. Simon is pretty sure his roommate Baz (short for Tyrannus Basilton Pitch) is a vampire, and he has trouble doing simple spells without going nuclear, and a magical monster called the Insidious Humdrum is terrorizing the wizarding world by sucking away magic. Simon’s journey resonates on an emotional level, taking on themes of finding one’s purpose and being true to oneself.

I loved some specific elements of Rowell’s magical world. Her magical system is based on linguistics, so popular phrases carry power (but only as long as they’re popular or still carry some sort of significance.) This allows for a variety of innovation and fields of study, as well as spells like “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” (to conceal a botched transformation so that ordinary people won’t notice it.) There’s also LGBTQ representation and a gentle exploration of the different ways in which a person might experience their sexuality, especially in the rocky landscape of adolescence. 

I recommend Carry On to readers who are looking for a fantasy book that honors diversity, is laugh-out-loud funny in places, carries a liberal sprinkling of cursing (which as a former sailor I appreciate), and overall creates an enjoyable but still emotional story of adventure and self-discovery.


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Ninth House

By Leigh Bardugo

Ninth House

Why this book?

Ninth House is Leigh Bardugo’s adult fantasy debut, and it’s a deliciously horrifying modern fantasy set on the campus of Yale University. Bardugo’s heroine, Galaxy “Alex” Stern, is a Yale freshman, but she didn’t get into the school because she worked hard during high school and had great recommendation letters; in fact, she carries with her a past of drug addiction and abuse after she dropped out of high school. But she can see ghosts, which are called Grays because of their monochromatic appearance, and that’s all that the magical secret societies of Yale need to slide her into the university’s incoming class. Alex joins the Ninth House, Lethe, which is tasked with watching over the arcane activities of the other eight magical societies on campus.

I loved this novel because it’s brilliantly written: part murder-mystery, part magical adventure, and part redemption story. There are echoes of Harry Potter in the different Houses (each has their own traditions, cultures, colors, and residences), but the story doesn’t feel at all derivative. The plotline tackles complex and harrowing issues, such as rape and abuse, so it’s not for the faint of heart, but the difficult parts build believable characters and aren’t gratuitous. The plot certainly kept me guessing at some points, so I have to give credit to the author for keeping an experienced fantasy reader guessing. Overall the fantastic writing and creepy ambiance made me want to venture to the Yale campus myself, if only to see the setting of such a compelling novel.


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Nevernight: Book One of the Nevernight Chronicle

By Jay Kristoff

Nevernight: Book One of the Nevernight Chronicle

Why this book?

I’ve seen Kristoff recommended numerous times by other readers on social media, so I finally picked up Nevernight. Kristoff set this epic fantasy in a Romanesque world that also draws from Wild West elements and features very cutting adult humor that made me gasp and then laugh out loud a few times. Mia Corvere witnesses her father’s execution as a girl, and escapes from the soldiers tasked with executing her.

While the revenge-seeking plotline as an overall device was a little predictable, Kristoff brings a sharp wit, great descriptions, and fresh concepts to it. Mia travels to be an acolyte in the Red Church, serving Our Lady of Murder and training to be an assassin. At this unique school, the teachers are accomplished assassins themselves, and there’s fierce competition to finish at the top of the class in various subjects such as poisons, thievery, and secret-stealing. I recommend this novel to anyone looking for an intense read rife with battle scenes, gory deaths, and no-holds-barred humor. 


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Sabriel

By Garth Nix

Sabriel

Why this book?

Now, this is the one book on the list where the school itself isn’t magical, but this has been one of my favorite fantasy books since I was about twelve years old. In Nix’s classic fantasy, Ancelstierre is divided into the Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom. Sabriel is sent to a boarding school in the New Kingdom, which echoes the feel of twentieth-century Great Britain. Across the Wall in the Old Kingdom, magic exists and dead things have a tendency not to stay dead, and Sabriel’s father is the Abhorsen, a necromancer tasked with keeping the dead from wreaking havoc on the living. When her father goes missing, Sabriel is called to take up his bandolier of magical bells and venture into the Old Kindom and death itself to fulfill her duty. 

I recommend this book to anyone who loves a well-constructed fantasy world that has a great magical system and some creepy dead creatures. While the school itself isn’t magical, it’s a key setting in the story, and it’s where the magical and the ordinary collide in the climax of the book. Nix creates a sense of history and depth in his story that transports the reader into Sabriel’s world, and it’s stood up to many rereads as I’ve gotten older.


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