Matriculate Magically: 14 Fantastical Institutions of Higher Learning

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Unseen University Library, by Discworld artist David Wyatt

The magical boarding school novel forms a robust subgenre of children’s and young adult fantasy literature. Harry Potter learns he’s a legacy student at Hogwarts; Percy Jackson is spirited off to a training ground for demigods; Lissa and Rose get dragged back to St. Vladimir’s, the vampire academy. This, despite the fact that the boarding school is not where most children (certainly, most American children) receive their educations these days. Structurally, I can see why authors love the setting: the magical academy submerges the child into another world, cut off from the mundanity of the everyday. Boarding school fictions also separate a kid from his or her parents, who, in much young adult fantasy, are impediments to the overt plot, and must be dispatched somehow. (This can also be achieved by rendering our protagonist an orphan, which makes Harry Potter something of a twofer: an orphan in a boarding school.)

These days, it’s entrance to the university—with its dorms and dining halls, sororities and internships, and circumscribed freedoms for people just teetering into adulthood—that is the more resonant circumstance for many readers. Going off to college can entail the first real severance from the family home and the home town, a strike out into the larger world. The addition of magic into this heady environment can be a complicating metaphor for the changes one undergoes in those early years of nascent adulthood. Certainly, the knack of adulting seemed like occult magic for me at that age, struggling through the larval stage of self-reliance. How much stranger it would have been with magic in the mix.

Here are 14 fantasy novels that take place in a college, university, or otherwise post-secondary setting. Not all of these colleges are magical in the sense that they teach the discipline of conjuring or the occult, and some of these stories follow professors instead of students as they navigate schools of magic, or the magic at their schools. Nevertheless, magic intrudes into each.

Miskatonic University (Chthlulu Mythos, by H.P. Lovecraft)
As the primary institution of higher learning in Lovecraft’s sprawling mythos, Miskatonic University, situated on the Miskatonic river in the Massachusetts town of Arkham—all of these places are fictional, by the way—is not a college of magic, but magic certainly infects the place, over and over. At Miskatonic, both students and teachers fall prey to the eldritch horrors the author is so well associated with. Miskatonic also boasts a prodigious archive of texts, which includes a copy of the Necronomicon (klaatu, barada, nik … cough cough). In this as in many fantasy novels, the college library is as important as the classroom: a repository for arcane and occult wisdom.

Unseen University (Discworld, by Terry Prattchet)
Due to the prodigious number of Discworld books—upwards of forty, though it depends on how you count them—Unseen University is probably the most extensively detailed university on this list. (In fact, there are at least three other magical universities in the series as well: Bugarup, Krull, and Brasenecks.) Not all Discworld novels are set at the wizarding school’s campus in the fictional city of Ankh-Morpork, but the exploits of UU’s head wizards is a main through-line for the series. In a sendup of the stuffiness of disconnected academia, the teachers at UU are largely so ancient they’ve forgotten each other’s names, and sometimes their own. The extremely overprotective librarian is a man-turned-orangutan, transformed in a magical mishap and none too bothered by it; his vocabulary consists of “ook” and “eek,” but everyone seems to understand him. He guards the university’s endless shelves (literally endless, mind you; there are Mobius shelves full of guides to the invisible and books never written) with a vengeance, and a scent of bananas hanging about. Altogether, the Unseen University is a teeming, active place, where just about anything can happen, and often does.

Eltisley Maze (All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders)
Patricia Delfine’s attendance at the magical college of Eltisley Maze occurs in the second act of All the Birds in the Sky, after she and her childhood friend, Laurence Armstead, escape more mundane high school hells. Patricia has a facility with magic, while Laurence’s talents are more technological, and the dialectic between magic and technology is one of the chief themes of the novel. Like many magical schools, Eltisley Maze has a variety of rules surrounding the use of magic, proscriptions Patricia regularly ignores in her post-graduate life. The university is a medieval institution, and its ways and rules are sometimes more traditional than rational. That may be doubly so for magical schools, which often seems to prioritize secrecy over compassion. Though Patricia and Laurence are both educated in profoundly different traditions—science fiction and fantasy, to put it reductively—the way they interact as individuals, irrespective of their educations, is the key to the novel’s conclusion.

Institute of Special Technologies (Vita Nostra, by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko)
Teenaged Sasha first meets the enigmatic Farit Kazhennikov when on a beach holiday with her mother. Through threat and innuendo, he coerces her to perform inexplicable tasks, which escalate through the next 18 months in his intractable insistence that she attend the Institute of Special Technologies. After her arrival in the provincial school, Sasha finds the curriculum incomprehensible, in service to a goal neither she nor her fellow first year students can fathom. It’s not entirely clear that the instruction provided by the Institute of Special Technologies is even magical in nature, even while Sasha experiences the inexplicable from the very first, as a girl on a beach with her mom, but it certainly has the power to reshape reality. Nevertheless, Vita Nostra is well grounded in the mundanity of dorm life—the petty squabbles with roommates, the friction of professors and students, the tearful calls home—and it soars in its description of the magical worlds that can open for the diligent student.

Blackstock College (Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean)
This one is close to my heart: the fictional Blackstock College of Tam Lin is set in my home state of Minnesota, with a protagonist who is the child of English professors. (I’m the child of English professors!) Blackstock is not a magical university, per se, but magic sneaks in at the edges, in relationships with professors, and those between students. The novel is full up with the minutia of dorm life as a first year—everything from the quality of the furniture, to the Meaning of Important works of Literature, to what outfit to wear to the big party is detailed, often to the point of tedium. But the tedium is exactly the point, and Tam Lin manages to capture the struggling inertness and great flights of fancy that I felt at that age. The magic intrudes late, and Dean twists it with real world consequences in such a satisfying way.

Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy (The Magicians, by Lev Grossman)
The Magicians is quite reasonably the book on this list most likely to be blurbed with something along the lines of “Harry Potter for adults.” The novel and trilogy follows Quentin Clearwater as he settles into his career at Brakebills, the only college for magic in America. As a child, Quentin loved a fictional Narnia-like series following the Chatwin family though the magical land of Fillory. This detail will be on the test later, though Quentin is initially disappointed when he’s told by the professors that magic isn’t nearly as amusing in real life as it is in those beloved books. Quentin and his cohorts are a students with magic at their disposal and not a ton of oversight, and both the hedonism that occurs, and the almost numbing boredom of learning magic (which requires a lot of tedious study and physical labor and not so many magic words), feels natural. Though Quentin is our protagonist, he is not portrayed as a chosen one or a hero, but more of a self-involved jerk, which describes most newly independent 18-year-olds, no?

University of the Archangels and St. John The Divine (Waking the Moon, by Elizabeth Hand)
The opening half of Waking the Moon follows a group of friends in their first, and, for most of them, final year at Divinity, as the extensively titled university is known in shorthand. Cassidy Sweeney is an average girl, but she falls in with the beautiful people during her time at Divinity: Angelica and Oliver, who turn out the be the Chosen Ones of a fell goddess of the moon. Their first year ends in expulsion or death, and the novel fast forwards 20-odd years into the future. The reawakening of the goddess, and the magnetic pull of her intrusion into the world, ties back to those almost simple-seeming transformative days, back when the future could still be anything. The events of that fateful freshman year resonate both spiritually and personally for all involved.

The University (The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss)
Despite being called simply “the University,” I view the school in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind as something of an edge case for inclusion on this list (but I also don’t want to get yelled at in the comments). Kvothe is only 15 or 16 when he wiles his way into the student body, and he’s apparently had no formal schooling up to that point. His squabbles with his classmate Ambrose have a decidedly adolescent feel, and the corporal punishment meted out when he breaks the rules feels more boarding school than university. That said, Kvothe’s university has that truly Alexandrian library and archive, an enticing collection far vaster than the Hogwarts restricted section (and far more restricted, too: after Kvothe is blacklisted for perusing the stacks with a lit candle, he can’t figure out a way back in without some help from an inside source). Universities in the dark ages were outgrowths of the monastery, and the collection and concentration of arcane knowledge was at least as important as the education one might receive. In this, the University qualifies.

The Wizards’ University (Year of the Griffin, by Diana Wynne Jones)
Though technically a sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm, Year of the Griffin is more shared world than true sequel. Like the University in The Name of the Wind, the institution in Year of the Griffin often feels more boarding school than college, but we will let this slide due to the sheer fun of the novel. Elda, the griffin daughter of a famous wizard, finds a complement of likeminded castoffs and misfits in her first year: several heirs of royal families in various states of hiding, children of enigmatic backgrounds, a revolutionary dwarf. The novel is one sendup of fantasy conventions after another, and also skewers the campus novel, and boarding school fantasies in general. It’s a wide-ranging romp that goes from the dorm cafeteria to Mars, and everywhere between. Wynne Jones had a knack for writing novels that feel loose—almost episodic—until they come together in the end, like a magician revealing a complex trick.

Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality (Etiquette and Espionage, by Gail Carriger) 
Until quite recently, historically speaking, women were not allowed admission to most colleges. Instead, women of a certain class were sent to finishing schools, where they learned comportment and etiquette; the school “finished” a lady who had already completed her secondary education. So they’re not quite colleges, but like colleges, finishing schools provide an education in the skills their students will need in their adult lives. Exasperated by her free spirited ways, Mrs. Temminnick sends her daughter Saphronia to a finishing school housed in a dirigible floating above Dartmoor. There, Saphronia learns which forks to use and how to dance a waltz, but she also takes classes in spycraft, espionage, and assassination. The curriculum at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy is wonderfully subversive.

Bedivere University (Hell Week, by Rosemary Clement-Moore)
Maggie Quinn, first year student at the same university where her father teaches, is determined to make her mark as a student journalist. Towards this end, she decides to rush with a sorority and write about the experience. Turns out, hell week—the term for the round of hazing before applicants are initiated into a Greek organization—is a little more literal in this novel than usual. Hell Week is the second novel in the Girl Vs. Evil series, taking place after the magically inclined Maggie Quinn saved prom night in Prom Dates from Hell. In this, Hell Week feels a little like the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, wherein a protagonist we followed through high school matriculates into college, though Clement-Moore still writes with a young adult sensibility. Which only makes sense, when you think about it: first year students are still teenagers, for the most part.

University of Inivea (Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, by Suzette Mayr)
Most of the books on this list follow students;this one concerns instead a tenured professor in her travails in a university imbued with terrible magic. The University of Inivea is not technically a magical university, but the titular Crawley Hall, where Edith keeps an office and teaches classes, is possessed by an eldritch presence. Crawley Hall wants them all to get out, a mood that manifests as maggots falling from the ceiling, suddenly appearing sinkholes, shifting hallways, and strangely large, ubiquitous hares. Dr. Vane is so harried by her thesis advisor, her dean, her workload, her students, and her girlfriend that the cursed and conscious hall is more exasperating than truly frightening… at first. Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall is a biting satire of academic life, starting off in the vein of the campus novel, then slowly twisting with the toxicity manifested by the structure of the university itself, both metaphorically and physically.

Fairwick College (The Demon Lover, by Juliet Dark)
The Demon Lover is another novel that follows a professor more closely than the students. Callie McFay is a young adjunct who had modest success with a pop criticism book about vampires in contemporary Gothic lit. (Think Gilbert & Gubar writing about Twilight; that sort of thing.) She’s drawn inexplicably to a teaching position in Fairwick College in upstate New York, despite several other, more prestigious-seeming opportunities. There, the Gothic trappings of her academic work begin to manifest, in both her towered Victorian apartment and a Byronic suitor for her affections. Like Tam Lin, The Demon Lover wears its influences on its sleeve, purposely invoking the rich literary traditions it draws upon. This self-awareness doesn’t undercut the occult at the story’s center, or its magic’s inexorable draw.

Harvard/Veritas (The Siren and the Sword, by Cecelia Tan)
Kyle Wadsworth (descendant of poet William Wadsworth, and an American) is accepted into Harvard University. When he arrives on campus, he learns he will be actually taking classes at the secret Veritas college, school to the children of the fae, and magical users more generally. He is a student of magic with a hidden legacy, an orphan who was unaware of his magical lineage. Boarding school fantasies, as they deal with largely underage readerships and protagonists, tend to eschew a more explicit examination of the characters’ sexuality. Sex, then, is something that sets this and other college-aged fantasy apart; these are books about nascent adults working their way through that first rush of freedom. The Siren and the Sword, like many of the books on this list, details awakenings both magical and sexual.


What magical colleges have we left off the list?

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