Fantasy abounds with daring young people who study magic on their own, expanding their grasp with bold experiments into fields they only poorly understand. Fantasy also abounds with sensible young people who, perhaps observing the scorch marks left behind by daring autodidacts, have found experienced elders to guide them past dangers of which novices are unaware.
Sometimes the students make do with a single mentor. Sometimes an entire educational institution is available. Sometimes the students chose their mentor. Sometimes the mentor chooses them. As these five works show, this seemingly simple arrangement lends itself to a wide variety of tales.
Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones (1977)
Magic saved Gwendolen and Eric “Cat” Chant from the boating accident that left them orphaned. Certified Witch Mrs. Sharp does her best to mentor Gwendolen. Ambitious Gwendolen sees no reason to settle for Mrs. Sharp when senior mage Christopher Chant is Gwendolen’s blood relative. The ambitious girl wastes little time inveigling an invitation out of Chant.
Much to Gwendolen’s irritation, life with Chant is not the shortcut to power and fame she expected. Chant proves all too adept at spotting misuse of magic. Viewing rules as something that apply to other people, Gwendolen decamps to another world, leaving her doppelgänger Janet in her place. It falls to magic-less Janet and timid Cat to save the world from the consequences of Gwendolyn’s grand schemes.
If I were assembling a list of authentically terrible relatives, Jones’ books might provide all the examples I might want. In this case, Christopher Chance is a bit too much of a hands-off mentor, allowing certain situations to develop longer than he should. However, this minor flaw in his character pales next to the flaws of Gwendolen, whose spoiled exterior conceals a truly villainous core.
Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko (2007)
Sixteen-year-old Sasha Samokhina has potential few others can match. Farit Kozhennikov urges her to embrace it. Indeed, he gives Sasha very little choice in the matter. Declining her educational destiny will result in catastrophe. Farit is convincing on this point.
Farit enrolls Sasha at the obscure Institute of Special Technologies. Her courses are traumatizing. But the consequences of failure are even worse—no choice but to press on, no matter how unwelcome the knowledge or alarming the effects of learning it on Sasha. With time, Sasha will learn to love the work that chose her.
Farit might not call what is being taught “magic.” Think of it as extremely advanced applied linguistics. Readers, on the other hand, will probably think of it as magic, if they don’t opt for cosmic horror. Nevertheless, once the abyss has stared into Sasha long enough, she no longer wants to escape.
The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco (2017)
When Tea’s brother Fox dies, a grief-stricken Tea discovers she has a talent for necromancy. She cannot bring her brother back to life. To her enormous surprise, she can rekindle his consciousness and grant him a mobile body. Tea is a bone witch.
Veteran bone witch Mykaela of the Hollows intervenes to save Tea from the dangers of amateur necromancy. Under Mykaela’s tutelage, Tae can become a respected, credentialled bone witch. All Mykaela asks in return is a few years of indentured servitude from Tea. Too bad that one of the side effects of using bone magic is a truncated lifespan.…
Tea’s society believes passionately that people, especially expendable people, should stick to their assigned roles (At least Tea won’t be drafted as a soldier or, as people call them, “deathseekers”). Too bad that one excellent way for a bone witch to convince her betters that she might have gone over to the dark side is to agitate for social reform.
The Marvellers by Dhonielle Clayton (2022)
The Arcanum Training Institute is the paramount centre for magical education. If asked, the administration would assert they select students purely on merit. Their inclusiveness has limits: conjurors are deemed too close to the underworld to admit. At least until very recently.
Ella, the very first conjuror to attend Arcanum Training Institute, has gained admission thanks to a lawsuit (mounted by her father). Forced to accept Ella, Arcanum provides her with valuable lessons. Not merely about magic. Ella learns how effectively a designated pariah can be isolated from the student body. She also discovers first-hand how diligent Arcanum’s administration can be at finding pretexts to punish and expel an unwanted student.
With few exceptions, the administration’s members are not a lovable lot. Many are steadfast bigots determined to roll back social progress. Unlike certain other series I could mention, the novel does not portray these efforts sympathetically.
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna (2022)
Witch Mika Moon enjoys teasing her mentor Primrose with displays of eccentricity. Despite this, Mika is diligent about following the rules that Primrose has drummed into her. Fearful of the consequences should witches be noticed by mundanes, Primrose is adamant that witches keep a low profile and that they avoid socializing with other witches. Mika yearns for companionship, thus her online videos in which Mika pretends to be an obviously fake witch.
Ian Kubo-Hawthorn sees through the fake witch costume to the real witch beneath. Enticed to Nowhere House, Mika discovers a magically veiled mansion, home to three child witches who desperately need the tutoring Mika can offer. Mika for her part finds the companionship of Nowhere House’s staff welcome. Alas, Mika’s new friends have held back important information, not least of which involves the corpse hidden in the garden.
The most notable element of this novel is the general lack of antagonists. Even the bigoted lawyer who complicates matters is only trying to pursue his client’s best interests, a client who happens to own Nowhere House. As the novel reveals, one doesn’t necessarily need a Big Bad as such. Bad luck and poor communication will suffice to drive a plot.
There are any number of works I could have mentioned here (alas, no room). If I’ve overlooked any fictional mentors or schools that you hold dear, please mention them 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.