Five Fantasy Novels Starring Self-Taught Protagonists

Formal educations are a fine thing if you have access to one. But if the field is new and no training exists, or if you are barred from training (for being the wrong gender, wrong class, having no money, etc.), then there is nothing for it but to teach oneself: scavenging for texts (if they exist) and learning by trial and error. Time to heal from mistakes may need to be factored into the curriculum.  Here are five examples.

 

The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke (2020)

Sideways Pike is a self-taught witch, an antisocial autodidact of the arcane. She’s smart, she’s determined, and her doting fathers have bought her some grimoires. No, she hasn’t attained powers beyond mortal comprehension, but she’s learned some minor spells that are flashy enough to convince a trio of popular girls to hire her to entertain at a party.

The party is a wild success. The magic dazzles. Sideways makes new friends and develops a massive crush on one of the girls she met at the party. She has also attracted the attention of witch-hunters determined to save Sideways from the evils of magic…even if stripping the magic from Sideways kills her.

***

 

When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey (2020)

Marcelina, Roya, Iris, Paulie, Maryam, and Alexis each have a talent for magic. What they don’t have is a teacher.  They’ve learned a fair bit through experimentation, but they still have an imperfect understanding of the hazards involved—as they find out when Alexis attempts to use magic to seduce Josh: he ends up exsanguinated. And very, very dead.

Alexis is not sure just what went wrong. What she does know is that she and her friends will have to conceal a corpse and clean up a blood-spattered room in a hurry.

***

 

The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk (2020)

If she were a man, Beatrice Clayborn would be trained; she possesses strong natural skills and has the potential to be a great magus. But Beatrice is a woman and in Chasland she will be denied magic until she is past menopause. Even then, what magic she can learn will be strictly circumscribed.

Nevertheless, she persists. There are grimoires, by women for women. Beatrice finds one in a bookstore, a text that will teach her to “summon a greater spirit and propose the pact of the great bargain.” She is one purchase away from achieving her dream…except that Ysbeta Lavan beats Beatrice to the coveted tome.

Too bad for Ysbeta that she cannot read the text she just purchased. Beatrice can. Perhaps an alliance is in order…

***

 

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher (2020)

Riverbraid prides itself on its toleration of magickers, even minor ones like Mona, whose talents are limited to baked goods. Because Mona is poor and her magic has no obvious military applications, she’s left to work in her aunt’s bakery. It’s not a bad life, really. Everything changes the morning that Mona finds a corpse sprawled on the floor of the bakery.

The victim is a another magicker. It soon becomes apparent that someone is hunting down the magically talented. Mona’s attempts to unravel the mystery involve her in a desperate resistance against high-level scheming and barbarian invasion. Only a baker can save the day.

***

 

Worm by John McCrae (2011–2013)

Taylor Hebert doesn’t have magic per se. What she does have is a bona fide superpower and, like the protagonists mentioned above, a comprehensive lack of access to a formal system to help her to master said superpower. Thus, Taylor does what so many have done before her: she makes her own costume before heading out to vanquish evil on the streets and rooftops of Brockton Bay.

At least, that’s the plan. The reality is that Taylor’s ability to control insects is a bit creepy, and her homemade costume is not reassuring. One scuffle later and “Skitter” wins her way into the Undersiders, an ambitious team of superhumans. Or more exactly, supervillains. But hey! At least she’s finally gotten some recognition.

***

 

No doubt you have your own favourite examples. Feel free to mention them in comments.

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 a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.

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