Imagine, if you will, a story featuring a wizard, sorcerer, or mage who is not an elderly greybeard or crone but rather a child or teen. Ideal fodder for books aimed at younger readers (and some adults as well). Such an original idea would no doubt earn billions…even though so very many authors have been down that road before.
Consider these five works from this well-established subgenre.
Perhaps one of the most famous youthful wizards is a talented but sometimes foolish young man who travels to an isolated but highly regarded wizards’ school, a boy who survives to contend with a disembodied incarnation of shadow and malice. I speak, of course, of the boy who survived: Ged, who first appeared in Ursula Le Guin’s 1968 A Wizard of Earthsea.
(I am always a bit boggled to rediscover that A Wizard of Earthsea was originally published by a small press, Parnassus Press, rather than by one of the big-name publishers. This is as counterintuitive as an SF classic being published by an automotive repair manual publisher. I would guess that in 1968 Le Guin was not the big name she was to be later in her career.)
Had I encountered this book later, I might have appreciated how Le Guin subverted many of the conventions of this well-established genre. As it was, A Wizard of Earthsea is one of the works that established my expectations regarding works about trainee sorcerers learning valuable life-lessons.
Some readers prefer their young wizards not live in secondary fantasy universes like Earthsea, but in worlds like ours. Such readers might enjoy a well-known series about a bespectacled British boy with a beloved pet owl: Timothy Hunter, who first appeared in Gaiman’s 1990 The Books of Magic.
An advantage to writing about young wizards is they are inexperienced and thus the ideal listener when it comes unloading large infodumps. They justify grand tours highlighting details of their world the author might otherwise have been forced to relegate to the background. In Hunter’s case, he is taken on a tour of DC Comic’s magical world, meeting a representative cross-section of DC’ supernatural characters. If you’re not familiar with that aspect of the DC universe, Books of Magic is an excellent introduction.
Fantasy fans being the steadfast progressives that they are, some may desire stories in which our young protagonist struggles against barriers imposed by unjust social conventions, such as those pertaining to gender. Terry Pratchett has their back, as shown in 1987’s Equal Rites, in which Eskarina Smith’s life is greatly complicated by the facts that although she is a girl, she is not a witch, and while she commands powers more suitable for sorcerers, she is not a boy. In the Discworld all magically adept women are witches, all wizards are men… until Esk.
Magic can offer a way to escape bullying that society appears perfectly content to ignore. At least, it can for protagonists, if not the people reading the books. Take, for example, Nita Callahan, who in Diane Duane’s 1983 So You Want to Be A Wizard finds in a mysterious tome the means to retrieve a pen stolen by bullies, and in the process enters a new life full of thrilling adventure.
Were this novel itself not enough to delight readers, Duane followed So You Want to Be a Wizard with nine sequel novels. Thus far, I mean. The ebooks are often quite affordably priced and acquiring them might encourage the author to write more.
Finally, few delights match those of watching young wizards discover that education can bridge seemingly unbridgeable social divides. Fern and Frieren, from Kanehito Yamada and Tsukasa Abe’s ongoing manga Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End, are divided by age and race, Fern being a very young human woman of immense magical potential, while Frieren is an ancient elf mage who struggles to relate to the mayflies with whom she must deal. Nevertheless, magic is sufficient common ground for Frieren to accept Fern as her apprentice. Grudgingly. Having been tricked into it by a cunning mutual acquaintance.
Unusually for fantasy works featuring quasi-immortals like the elves, Yamada and Abe’s manga is notable because magical techniques are ever evolving. The last discovery many ageless make is that they should have kept up on recent developments better than they did. This is less of a challenge for Fern, since as an apprentice she is aware there is much she does not know, on top of which she’s only human and will die of old age before her chosen field progresses much further.
I know there’s an obvious example everyone is expecting to see here, but I have recently discussed Mary Stewart’s Merlin in another article. In writing my essays, I follow many criteria in selecting books; one of them is to try not to repeat books too often.
This particular subgenre is old and has many, many examples. No doubt commenters will be kind enough to interrupt my harried puttering around to mention some I overlooked in comments, which are, as ever, below.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.