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Schools of Magic

September 19, 2011

Got another fun list for you today–and it has UNICORNS.

Okay, it doesn’t have unicorns.  But it does have plenty of magic (also telepathic spirit-guide kind of things that take the shape of white horses, a wish-granting silver stag, and–waitforit–one book actually does have a unicorn, for about a page).  In fact, today’s list features some of my favorite schools of magic.

Hogwarts goes almost entirely without saying, although you can blame it for my deep and abiding love for fantasy novels that feature its cousins.  Magical-school stories give us all the gossip, class-clowning, griping about homework, and adolescent romance we could possibly want out of a plain ol’ Muggle school drama, and combine it with the undeniable allure of the best school subject ever–namely, magic.  Not to mention the fact that the nerd with her nose in a book usually saves the day (*cough*Hermione*cough*).  It’s not tough to see this colorful and common-room-studded subgenre’s appeal.

1. The Isle of Roke

In Ursula Le Guin’s enchanting Earthsea series, the school of magic at Roke is only the first step on a journey that takes protagonist Ged to the edges of the known world.  It and Ged’s fellow students are consequently less central to his adventures than, say, Hogwarts is to Harry.  Ged’s study of magic is intensely personal and often troubling, though he perseveres through the early mistakes of a youngster with too much power and not enough wisdom and eventually returns to the school as its headmaster.  As magic in Earthsea is of the “know something’s true name, and you can control it” variety, students spend months on end in the Master Namer’s tower memorizing lists of true names in dreary solitude.  Look for other memorable school-of-magic tropes like the Master Doorkeeper’s test, which bars new students from entry until they pass it.

2. The University

Okay, actually Edinburgh.

Okay, you caught me–that’s actually a photograph of Edinburgh.  (A gorgeous one, so click through to the photographer’s DeviantArt page.)  For whatever reason, I’ve always imagined our next school to look like Edinburgh.

Some of you may remember my fangirlish devotion to The Name of the WindThe school of magic in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle, which goes by the unspecific moniker of “the University,” is responsible in large part for my love of the series.  I suppose that after having adventured my way through my own (unfortunately non-magical but still charming and rather homey) college experience, I tend to prefer magical universities to their K-12ish counterparts.

This University is very much a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience for series protagonist Kvothe.  Admissions and tuition are both determined by a grueling oral exam/interview at the start of every term, and for the undeniably brilliant but always broke and unwisely loudmouthed Kvothe–whose uncanny ability to offend professors doesn’t come in handy in this case–the experience can be nerve-wracking to say the least.  Other highlights include the hilarious antics of not-quite-sane professor Elodin, an acidic rivalry between Kvothe and the richest kid in school, an ancient and lore-rich library, and the vaguely steampunk-flavored artificers’ lab.

3.  The Collegium

At the core of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series are the Heralds, a rather knightly order of magic-users who protect the realm and who are each partnered with a Companion–a not-a-horse that is both sentient and telepathic, and whose showing up in remote areas of the country to Choose a youngster for the Heralds usually causes a big fuss and often, since Lackey’s characters tend not to have the cheeriest of childhoods, turns into a one-man (-horse) rescue operation.  For these protagonists, the Collegium often as not seems like some kind of heaven, simply for delivering clothing that fits and regular, warm meals.  Said young Herald trainees share their magical school with Healers and Bards, who employ their magic to more specific ends.  Valdemar lends its Collegium a more medieval feel, with Heraldic students training for horsemanship and combat as often as they study magic.

The two newest Valdemar novels–Foundation and Intriguesdetail the founding of the school, but are among the weakest books in the series by far.  Newcomers should start with Arrows of the Queen (the first book in the series) or the Mage Winds trilogy–which is where I started reading, so many years ago ;)–which begins with Winds of Fate.

4. Brakebills College

Brakebills is the only fictional school of magic I know of that has its own website.  Clever!  Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians imagines a magical college at a vague, well-hidden location in upstate New York.  Protagonist and cynically mopey antihero Quentin Coldwater wanders his way on campus through a portal that opens behind a tangle of bushes in a Brooklyn park, only to be thrown into a deliberately abstruse and nonsensical admissions exam.  (Surprise!  He passes.)  The school has its own hedge maze, as well as climate-control and camouflage spells that leave the school three months behind the world’s normal timeline as a side effect.  Students struggle their way through fiendishly difficult finger-exercises and memorize sanity-threatening amounts of special conditions that might affect their spellcasting.  Good thing Quentin and his friends are ridiculously smart, right?

One of my favorite things about The Magicians has to do with the way Grossman handles its urban-fantasy flavor.  Magic is part of our world, but hidden from us ordinary peons, in the proud tradition of Harry Potter.  But this book is much more in line with the skeptical, cheeky, wry humor of college students from the Internet age.  Too often, characters in sci-fi or urban fantasy or horror stories react as though they’d never picked up a book or watched a movie before, and thus can’t even begin to predict what might happen next.  Quentin and company react to magic and the fantasy-adventure tropes they encounter precisely the way you would if you had read those books and seen those movies.  They joke about Dungeons & Dragons and make cracks about Hogwarts.  It makes them so easy to identify with that I couldn’t even be frustrated about how eternally mopey and depressed Quentin is–and that’s a feat.  If you’re looking for a new fantasy read that’s substantial but doesn’t clock in at 1,200 pages, look no further.

I’d better stop before I give away the plots of all these books and you don’t want to read them.  If I missed your favorite magical school, let me know in the comments!

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