The Harry Potter books raised a whole generation of us who dreamed of witchcraft and wizardry, of escaping to the hallowed halls of magical schools in far-off places. Never mind that the school probably won’t pass basic Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, and an ogre, basilisk, or three-headed dog might just be lurking around the corner.
But we’re older now, and I’m personally a lot less inclined to enjoy media that funds a TERF. And if you’re the same, the good news is that there are a lot of books out there that also feature magical schools filled with mystery, action, and adventure.
From a convent school of killer nuns to an orphanage educating the literal antichrist, here’s a back-to (magic) school reading list composed of titles that have at least four stars on Goodreads.
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
Scholomance, the magical school in Naomi Novik’s 2020 novel A Deadly Education, is inspired, a little ironically, by Hogwarts. Novik shared that writing it involved “taking the glaring flaws in school safety at Hogwarts a little too seriously.”
In this universe, sorcerers rely on mana, an energy that helps them wield magic but also puts them in danger from mana-eating monsters, known as the maleficaria — “mals” for short. Mals are particularly dangerous for witches and wizards just entering puberty (as if puberty wasn’t hard enough). In fact, half of the students in Scholomance, with its magical wards and protections, die before graduating.
The book follows El, who is a bit of an outcast and is learning to control her dark powers at Scholomance. The prose isn’t for everybody, but those who enjoy sarcastic narration would delight in El’s unique brand of snark.
A Deadly Education is part of a recently concluded trilogy, with Universal Pictures set to make a film adaptation.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune
If you’re in the mood for something with a little less death, T.J. Klune’s 2020 novel The House In the Cerulean Sea is a great choice and feels like a breath of fresh (warm and hopeful) air.
In it, Linus is a caseworker in the deeply flawed and very bureaucratic Department in Charge of Magical Youth, who evaluates schools and orphanages for magical children.
His routine-filled life changes when he arrives at the Marsyas Island Orphanage, the titular house in the cerulean sea, to write up a report on the care of six children deemed especially dangerous: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the literal antichrist.
The novel might start a little slow for some, but it’s a sweet and delightful read about humanity and found family. It’s also a good way to get into Klune’s award-winning writing, which is full of LGBTQ+ characters and themes.
Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston
In B.B. Alston’s 2021 book Amari and the Night Brothers, 13-year-old Amari just wants to find her missing brother. She never stops believing that he’s alive — not when schoolyard bullies say he’s gone, and certainly not when the police seem to think he was into something illegal and therefore don’t care about finding him.
But then, she finds a briefcase in his closet with a nomination for her to join a training camp at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs. She soon finds out that not only are there supernatural creatures and magical folk in this world—she’s also one of them. But not really, because she’s treated like an outsider anyway.
Despite the odds stacked against her in the magical training camp, she must find a way to pass her exams, save the world, and, hopefully, find her brother.
Kind of like Artemis Fowl meets Men in Black, Amari and the Night Brothers is a great opener for a middle-grade series, offering an action-packed commentary on race, class, and perseverance.
In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
13-year-old Elliot Schafer is smart and just a bit obnoxious, but he’s also the only one on his class field trip that can see a mysterious wall. And at the start of Sarah Rees Brennan’s 2017 book In Other Lands, he finds out that beyond the wall is the Borderlands, and a magical place with a magical school he is promptly invited to study in.
The book isn’t as focused on world-building as it is on exploring its characters and their growth. It also deconstructs the portal fantasy and subverts its many tropes, including the familiar Y.A. love triangle. It does so without being mean or dismissive, and the result is a refreshing and hilarious take on magical schools in a land far from achieving peace.
It’s also touching in really unexpected ways, and it’s not hard to find yourself starting to root for a main character that’s initially quite abrasive and unlikable.
Red Sister by Mark Lawrence
There’s a lot to love in Mark Lawrence’s 2017 fantasy novel Red Sister, the first of a trilogy called Book of the Ancestor. Firstly, the magical school featured in the book is a convent school. And even better, the students at the ironically named Convent of Sweet Mercy are taught to be expert killers.
There’s meticulous world-building, a complex magic system, an intricate plot with multiple timelines, exquisitely lyrical prose, and an all-female main cast with badass nuns that you don’t often get in the genre. It’s also not every day you get an opening hook as intense as: “It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent, Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.”
The story follows Nona, a young girl recruited to join the convent after being saved from execution. She quickly becomes one of a special group of students with rare and mythic talents.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
R.F. Kuang’s 2018 novel The Poppy War is a historical military fantasy inspired by China’s bloody 20th century and is the first installment of an epic trilogy. In it, Rin, a dark-skinned war orphan, surprises everyone, including herself, when she aces the Keju, an Empire-wide placement test, and wins herself a spot at the elite military school Sinegard.
It’s a welcome surprise — an escape, really, from her dreary existence and the inevitability of an arranged marriage — but Rin soon finds that life at Sinegard is far from easy, especially for someone of her gender, class, and color. She also realizes that she possesses a rare shamanistic power she’s only beginning to unlock, with the help of a slightly unhinged teacher and some interesting psychoactives.
But a war is brewing outside the walls of the magical academy, and Rin’s powers might just be the key to winning it.