In my debut novel, The Witch Haven, 17-year-old seamstress Frances Hallowell is whisked off to Haxahaven Academy, a school for witches disguised as a tuberculosis sanitarium. Frances’s world of 1911 New York resembles my own adolescence in suburban Utah in exactly zero ways, but there was nothing I longed for more as a teenager than to be taken away to a magic boarding school. In my teenage fantasies, I lived in a crumbling castle and wore a cute plaid skirt and there was also someone (was he a mysterious boy with curly hair and piercing eyes? That’s my business!) who would teach me witchcraft.
Haxahaven, the school in The Witch Haven, isn’t in an old castle, rather an old monastery, and the uniforms are capes rather than flippy little skirts, but the general principles of the fantasy still apply (is there a boy with curly hair and piercing eyes… perhaps). But for Frances, magic boarding school is hardly a sanctuary. Oppressive, claustrophobic, and frustrating, Haxahaven is hiding secrets under its sparkling façade. Perhaps that’s the most fascinating thing about schools of magic trope, for every enviable uniform and swoon-worthy magical classmate, there’s something just around the corner, power that could be your saving grace or eat you alive.
I’m hardly the first writer to be consumed with the idea of a magical academy. Perhaps it’s the eternal fantasy of possessing power, or perhaps it’s the dream of never getting a D in calculus, even after studying (and crying a little) with your dad over the dining room table.
Below you’ll find recommendations for books that take place at magical schools, some more wish-fulfilling than others. I’d happily attend Brakebills, but know for certain would die almost immediately in Scholomance. It’s probably for the best I was never whisked off to the boarding school of my dreams. My suburban constitution could never have survived in a drafty castle, and boys with piercing eyes and big promises should historically never be trusted. I’ll stick to reading and writing about magic schools.
Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy — The Magicians by Lev Grossman
The Magicians is an adult fantasy series opener that turns the magic school genre on its head. Presenting magical education as equal parts fantastical and deeply tedious and frustrating, it’s difficult to read Grossman’s work without vividly picturing yourself sitting in a Brakebills classroom learning about the metaphysics of magic. Featuring high fantasy elements reminiscent of Narnia and one of my all-time favorite Sad Boys of literature Quentin Coldwater, The Magicians drops you in a magical world running adjacent to the real one. A deeply creepy villain and magic college parties only make things more fun. There’s a reason this is a perennial favorite.
Scholomance — A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
Oft compared to The Hunger Games, A Deadly Education takes place at Scholomance, a magical academy infamous for killing its own students. Students at Schoolmance are given one choice: graduate or die. No holidays, breaks, dances, or teachers, Novik forces readers to ask themselves “maybe high school wasn’t so bad after all?” A prickly cast of well-rounded characters, a chosen-one trope that feels completely fresh, and the sense of creeping dread threaded through every page make this a book easy to read in a single sitting. No one writes atmosphere like Novik.
Sinegard — The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
When Rin, a war orphan, aces an empire-wide test that lands her in The Academies, she’s as shocked as everyone else. Taken to Sinegard, the most elite military academy in Nikan, she soon finds not only is she extraordinarily gifted, her gifts have made her a target. A thrilling fantasy set in a world so vivid you can feel it, The Poppy War stressed me out so badly I had to keep getting up and walking around my room. Kuang deftly intertwines military history, magic, and vengeful gods into a book so good it deserved to be called, not only one of the best fantasies of 2019, but of all time.
Osthorne Academy of Young Mages — Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
Is there anything better than a detective with both razor-sharp claws and wit? Magic for Liars turns the chosen one trope upside down, as Ivy Gamble, an investigator, is brought into Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, a school she never attended, but where her sister works, to solve a grisly murder. Magic For Liars peels back the sparkly fun of magic classes an enchanted love letters to reveal something pointedly less sparkly underneath. Ivy Gamble doesn’t have magic, she was never before invited into the world her sister inhabits, but still, it’s up to her to save them all. A heart-pounding thriller, Magic for Liars is a mystery for both true crime and fantasy lovers.
Eastern School of Solar Magic — The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin
Rachel Griffin’s The Nature of Witches recently debuted with a splash, and rightly so. A new twist on the witch genre, the book centers around Clara and her climate-based magic. A rare everwitch, Clara is different from most of the students at the Eastern School of Solar Magic, whose power is tied only to a single season. But Clara’s magic comes at a price, killing her parents and best friends. Dealing with the trauma of loss, the awakening of her own powers, and struggling to figure out who exactly she is, Clara is a heroine worth rooting for. Griffin’s climate-based magic feels especially timely, in this unique YA standalone.
UNC-Chapel Hill — Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
I know what you’re saying. “But Sasha, UNC-Chapel Hill is a real place not a fictional magic academy” to which I say, “If Tracy Deonn says it’s magic, then it’s magic!” Deonn’s brilliant debut follows 16-year-old Bree Matthews, a high schooler sent to the university as part of a program for gifted students. There, she discovers demons feeding on human energy and a secret society of students called Legendborns, whose job it is to stop them. This Arthurian retelling explores the deep, human connections between those called to save the world together. Wholly original and completely thrilling, Legendborn made me wish my college campus had more than a swing dance club and a coffee shop that was somehow always out of croissants. Legendborn is an instant classic.
Sasha Peyton Smith grew up in the mountains of Utah surrounded by siblings, books, and one very old cat. She attended the University of Utah and the George Washington University where she studied biology and public health. She is not a witch, though she does own a lot of crystals and always knows what phase the moon is in. She currently lives in Washington DC.