J.K. Rowling has done much to revive the literary genre of boarding school stories, which achieved its greatest (pre-Potter) popularity in the period between Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) and the mid-twentieth century. As a setting, boarding schools allow for the construction of thrilling narratives: concerned parents are replaced by teachers who may well prioritize student achievement over student welfare, e.g. maximizing points for Gryffindor over the survival of the students earning those points. Because the students cannot easily walk away from the school, they must deal with teachers and other students, some of whom may be vividly villainous (Miss Minchin, for example—the antagonist in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess).
Are there any SFF novels featuring boarding schools? Why yes! I am glad you asked—there are more than I can list in a single article. Here are just a few.
Joe and Jack C. Haldeman’s 1983 fix-up There is No Darkness features an institution called Starschool. It is both school and starship; its itinerary includes a dozen-plus worlds scattered across the Confederación. Each world offers opportunities for students to find themselves in way over their heads. Protagonist Carl Bok, who hails from a backwater planet, must prove himself to his wealthier and more cultured schoolmates. He strides confidently into danger and then must do his best to extricate himself.
Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids (1989) introduces Ankh-Morpork’s Assassin’s Guild…or to be more exact, the institution that trains the assassins of tomorrow. Entry into the school is easy, whether one is poor or, like Pteppic of Djelibeybi, of actual nobility. Between induction and graduation, students receive an education in all the ways that living beings can be ushered into the afterlife. One in fifteen of the students emerges having mastered these techniques. The other fourteen gain personal acquaintance with sudden murder. Still, everyone agrees that the Assassin’s Guild is a lot more fun than the Jester’s Guild next door. Pteppic of Djelibeybi may survive the school—only to find that it’s actually less frightening than the looming danger waiting for him at home.
Kazuma Kamachi’s ongoing series of short novels and their associated manga and anime (A Certain Magical Index, A Certain Scientific Railgun, A Certain Scientific Accelerator, etc.) is set in Academy City. The city is home to over two million students, most of whom have some degree of reality-breaking Esper power. Some can control electromagnetism; some can keep objects at a constant temperature. Imagine the Xavier School for the Gifted with the population of Paris, France. Unlike the leadership of Xavier’s school, however, the people running Academy City are ambitious people entirely unfamiliar with the concepts of consent or ethics….
Christopher Brookmyre’s 2009 Pandaemonium features St. Peter’s High School. It isn’t technically a boarding school, but it ventures into boarding school territory when administrators arrange a retreat for students in a secluded facility. The teachers and staff have only the best of intentions: the outing is an effort to ensure that the students come to terms with the recent death of a schoolmate. Alas, the staff have not vetted the facility’s neighbours as well as they should have, which is why it takes the attendees some time to become aware that they will be dossing down next to a portal to Hell. Coming to terms with death swiftly becomes a universal experience.
Most denizens of boarding schools are dispatched there by their parents or guardians. In Nicky Drayden’s 2018 Temper, twin brothers Auben and Kasim have connived to win their way into a prestigious boarding school; they’ve blackmailed their wealthy father (whose paternity is unacknowledged; he prefers that it stay that way). The twins enroll in the hope that somewhere in the school’s well-stocked library is a hint about how to cure the brothers’ ongoing divine possession. It’s good to have goals when one heads off to higher education; the twins manage to achieve unimagined heights. Of what, I’m not telling you…
So, if you are a writer and your youthful protagonists are burdened with parents as doting as they are competent , don’t despair! Simply invent a suitably Dickensian educational establishment that offers full-time living quarters and dispatch them hence. Adventure can only follow!
Originally published in January 2019.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.