Beneath the Sugar Sky, the third novella in Seanan McGuire’s excellent Wayward Children series, is out this week, giving me the perfect opportunity to write about one of my favorite fantasy subgenres: the magical boarding school story.
Here are nine fantasy books that use the magical boarding school setting to help tell their story…
Wayward Children by Seanan McGuire
The novellas of Wayward Children, the series from Seanan McGuire, are examples of smart, affecting fantasy stories that both tells its own story and uses that story to comment on the genre in clever, subversive ways.
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In the first book, Every Heart a Doorway, we meet the children and adults at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a place children returning from a fantasy adventure to help acclimate back to life in our reality. (Narnia’s Pevensies or Wonderland’s Alice would be great candidates, for example.) When children start to turn up murdered, the children have a mystery to solve.
The second installment, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, tells the story of Jack and Jill—how they ended up in their fantasy world, and what led to them getting kicked out. The third installment, Beneath the Sugar Sky, returns to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children for a new story. All of the novellas work as standalones, but can also be read together.
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Carry On, the standalone follow-up to Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, is another example of recent fantasy that has some things to say about the stalwarts of fantasy literature. In Carry On‘s case, the work it comments on and critiques is Harry Potter, and it’s the perfect read for anyone who grew up reading the fantasy classics, but who wants to lovingly critique the story as an adult.
Carry On is the story of Simon Snow, a young wizard at his final year at Watford School of Magicks. Simon is The Chosen One, but he’s not very good at it—unable to control his powers and desperate to do so to curb the magic-stealing villain with his face who keeps causing trouble. It doesn’t help that his girlfriend recently broke up with him or that his roommate/nemesis/possible vampire Baz is nowhere to be found. His absence is very distracting.
This book is a delightful subversion of the Chosen One narrative, giving the story not just to Simon, but to Baz and witches Agatha and Penelope to tell. It’s a queer love story. It’s meta-commentary on Harry Potter and fan culture. And it follows the best of fanfiction tropes (meant here and always as a total compliment) to tell its story.
You’ll start Carry On by trying to figure out which characters equate to which Harry Potter characters. By the end of this book, you’ll realize that this is a story worth loving all on its own.
Among Others by Jo Walton
Real talk? I haven’t read this one yet, but Jo Walton is brilliant, so I feel confident recommending it to fans of magical boarding school literature (even if both its magical and its boarding school elements are more subtle and complicated than other entries on this list).
Among Others tells the story of Mori, a young woman raised by her magical mother in Wales. When her mother begins to use dark magic, Mori is forced to confront her in magical battle, which ends with Mori’s twin sister dead and Mori with a disability.
Mori goes to live with her father, whom she barely knows, and is sent to a nearby girls’ boarding school. Struggling to live in a world largely without magic, Mori dives into science fiction and fantasy literature, reading many of the genres’ classics. A book about trauma and stories, Walton writes: “There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books.”
Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead
Better than the underrated Vampire Academy movie adapted from it, the Vampire Academy book series is the gloriously not-Twilight of the young adult vampire fiction world.
The six-part Vampire Academy series follows vampire best friends Moroi princess Lissa Dragomir and her bodyguard-in-training Rose Hathaway. After two years on the run, the girls are returned to St. Vladimir’s Academy, where they are forced to be separated into their respective training tracks. However, unbeknownst to the instructors and students at the academy, Lissa and Rose share a psychic bond that keeps them connected even when they are apart.
The first book follows Rose and Lissa’s reacclimation into the interpersonal drama of school, as well as the growing danger vampire royalty Lissa faces from the Strigoi, an evil race of vampires. These books are more supernatural school than magical boarding school, but this series is so addicting, I doubt you’ll care about the fine print.