The Academy: New Approaches in Fantasy Literature


Apollo gives Asclepius to Chiron (Mophart Creation/Shutterstock)

The idea of a school for magic is far from being a new thing in literature. We all immediately think of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which are certainly the most well-known modern examples. Some of us will remember Ursula LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea as well. But the idea goes back much earlier.

Chiron the centaur in Greek mythology trained young warriors, not wizards, but his story contains many magical elements. Aside from the fact that he’s a centaur (and a son of Cronus and Philyra, making him Zeus’s half-brother), he’s also a master of the healing arts. In very ancient times, these would have been more magical than medical. One of his students, Asclepius, son of Apollo, learned healing from Chiron and eventually became a god in his own right. Other students included Jason (of golden fleece fame), Aristaeus (another son of Apollo who eventually became a god), and Achilles. Chiron’s “school” is not completely analogous to later magic schools, but it does have some resemblances.

(Vladimir Mulder/Shutterstock)

Other ancient and medieval sources involve magic training, but usually between a mentor and a single student (such as Blaise or Bleys and Merlin), Morgan le Fay bizarrely learns magic in a nunnery, at least according to one source. But at some point, perhaps in the late Middle Ages, the idea of a magic school began to solidify. We see this in a Romanian tradition, later spread to Germany, about a school run underground by Satan himself. (The German name is Scholomance, which becomes important later.) Icelandic folklore also includes tales about a Black School (Svartiskóli) which seems also to be run by Satan, who keeps the student who is slowest to leave for himself.

(Zastolskiy Victor/Shutterstock)

The first modern literary magic school is Domdaniel, found in the continued story of the Arabian Nights by Dom Chavez and Cazotte, which was published in 1793.  Domdaniel appears in passing in several literary works published over the next century. In the Twentieth Century, the use of magic schools increased rapidly, though most of them don’t seem to be directly inspired by their literary predecessors.

Particularly after the boom following the release of the Harry Potter novels, you might expect the growing number of school-of-magic books to become somewhat repetitive. But in fact, many authors have developed original twists on this old theme. With a little imagination, on can breathe new life into even the most ancient of premises.

Demigods Academy Series

(Pavlo Burdyak/Shutterstock)

Like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, the Demigods Academy series by Elisa S. Amore and Kiera Legend has roots in Greek mythology. But while Riordan has a male protagonist and aims initially at a middle grade audience, Amore and Legend make more use of female protagonists and clearly focus on a YA audience.

Both series involve students descended from the Greek gods, who rule the universe in both. But the schools involved are very different. Camp Half Breed in the Percy Jackson universe is a teaching facility, but it’s also a sanctuary that keeps the children of the gods from being devoured by the monsters who constantly seek to destroy them. In addition, it’s existence (as well as that of its half-divine students) is a closely guarded secret.

In contrast, though Demigods Academy is a secret, its students are not. The half-divine serve in the Gods’ Army, sometimes descending like super heroes to rescue mortals from supernatural menaces. These rapid interventions are facilitated by the fact that, at a certain point, the students develop wings.

Members of the academy are recruited by means of shadow boxes, which are given by the gods to all people on their eighteenth birthday. Most people get birthday wishes or a small gift, but the favored few, who happen to be descendants of gods, are given their invitation to Demigod Academy. Once there, they do some basic training and are then claimed by one of the gods (usually the one to whom they are related).

The situation becomes rough if a student is descended from an unusual god. But everyone’s situation is complicated by the fact that the gods are sometimes evil and have hidden agendas. In such cases, the students become pawns in the gods’ cosmic struggles. As you can imagine, there is fertile ground for conflict in such an environment.

Though the inspiration here is obviously Greek mythology, the gods are modernized somewhat, much as they are in the Percy Jackson books. For example, Dionysus sometimes performs as a DJ, and aside from drinking wine, he also enjoys smoking marijuana with Demeter. That said, the books don’t seem to encourage substance abuse. The gods who partake too much end up looking less effective when they try to solve problems.

And yes, there is also a little non-graphic sex between consenting adults. Neither that nor the presence of marijuana would discourage from recommending the books to their target audience. Certainly, there are a lot of positive messages, dealing with everything from courage to friendship.

Scholomance Series

(Christian Buckamneer/Shutterstock)

Yes, I think it’s safe to say that Naomi Novik may have drawn a little inspiration from Romanian folklore here, though her Scholomance in her novel is not run by the Devil. But students do have to rush to get out the door at graduation, for reasons I’ll mention in just a moment. And like an Icelandic counterpart of the Romanian Scholomance, The Black School (Svartiskóli), there are no teachers. Books and explanatory notes appear when students need them. 

Despite these few similarities, Novik makes the material very much her own. Though there is no Devil involved, the magic users in this series are definitely subject to temptation. Magic is based on mana, which exists in all living things. Casters who are “strict mana” build their own. But it’s possible also to use malia–mana drawn without consent from the life force of other living creatures. Performing such an act causes damage to the perpetrator’s anima (the part of the caster that generates mana), so that eventually, someone who was evil enough would have no choice but to steal mana rather than generate it.

Even worse, we find out later in the series that using malia creates mals (maleficaria), creatures who feed on the mana of wizards, killing them in the process.

The Scholomance is a school, but, like Camp Halfblood, it’s also intended as a sanctuary. Young wizards, if not extremely well-protected, are eaten by mals. The Scholomance was supposed to shelter young wizards. Unfortunately, mals gradually worked their way in, making a school a kind of death trap (though still safer than the outside world). Students who want to survive learn quickly never to go anyplace alone, never to sit directly under an air vent, and other handy survival tips.

The graduation hall, through which every student has to leave, is especially highly infected. Students make alliances to survive, but even so, most of them don’t make it out.

This pattern has repeated itself for years, until El Higgins develops the seemingly impractical idea of getting all the students to ally with each other with the goal of saving everyone.

If ever there was series that illustrates the value of teamwork, this is it. It also has some the best twists I’ve seen in a long time. People who are good turn out to be evil or vice versa quite often. Clues that lead in one direction at first often end readers up at a different place entirely. And the foundations on which the wizard world is built are not as solid as they appear. 

Like Demigods Academy books, the Scholomance series has a little non-graphic sex but nothing that would prevent me from recommending it to high school students.

Zodiac Academy Series


In contrast, this series, written by Caroline Peckham and Suzanne Valenti, I couldn’t recommend to high school students, though I would strongly encourage post-high school readers to give it a try.

It’s self-proclaimed bully romance (literature in which the heroine is in love with a bully), a genre fraught with potential issues for readers. However, after reading the product description for the first book, I decided to give it a try and was pleasantly surprised for reasons I’ll explain below.

The story takes place in a parallel universe, which is somewhat like Earth but much more magical. In fact, there are several magic schools, but the most prestigious is Zodiac Academy in the kingdom of Solaria, where the early books in the series are set.

Solaria’s population looks human, but is actually fae. Each fae is proficient in at least one magical element (fire, air, water, earth) and may be proficient in more. In addition, each fae is a member of an order, which gives him or her an alternate form and some additional powers. Orders include pretty much any magical or mythological creature you can think of–dragons, griffins, minotaurs, pegasuses, vampires, werewolves, sirens, harpies, and many others. The order also dictates how a particular fae recharged magically. For instance, dragons do so by touching their treasure, gold in particular. Vampires do so by drinking blood.

Fae society has certain laws protecting the weak, but many aspects of society are based on strength. For instance, vampires may use anyone as a blood and magic source if they can force that person. In other words, some behaviors we would considering bullying or abuse are the accepted way society runs.

Into this fraught situation come Tory and Darcy, the twin heroines who turn out to be Roxyana and Gwendalina Vega, daughters of the last king. Their parents had sent them to Earth to save them from being murdered, and they’ve been rediscovered just in time to attend Zodiac Academy.

Since might makes right on Solaria, they don’t automatically succeed to the throne, but they will be allowed to fight for it after graduation. Meanwhile, they have to deal with the eldest sons of the Celestial Council, who are known collectively as the Heirs.

The Heirs are the worst bullies in the early part of the series. Seeing Tory and Darcy as the biggest possible threat to their own position, Darius, Caleb, Seth, and Max do everything in their power to make the returned Vega princesses miserable.

Fortunately, the series goes far beyond that. As it fleshes out the Heirs, we discover that they are more products of their culture than evil. Some of them have also suffered abuse and been victims as well as victimizers. While that doesn’t excuse their bullying, it makes it more possible to forgive them as their relationship with the girls changes.

Yes, as the Heirs and the princesses get to know and understand each other better, and as common enemies develop, their relationships become more and more friendly, revealing in the process some of the Heirs’ redeeming qualities.

But what makes this series stand out from other bully romances for me is the fact that Tory and Roxy aren’t hopelessly in love with their tormentors in some masochistic and unhealthy relationship. Indeed, in the beginning, they aren’t in love with them at all. Far from being willing victims, they are strong, intelligent, independent woman who give as good as they get–and it turns out, payback really is a bitch.

I think any person who has read the books would realize that, despite a potentially cringeworthy premise, the books are really about overcoming obstacles, courage, personal growth, friendship, and love, among other things.

Despite the serious and sometimes dark nature of the books, the authors also manage to infuse considerable amounts of surprising humor. For instance, werewolves, fierce as they are, also behave like dogs. The first time Seth gave a frustrated shout demanding snuggles, I fell over laughing. Another particularly funny order is the pegasus (really a pegasus/unicorn hybrid, since it has a horn). Even in their human form, pegasuses tend to shed glitter and stamp their feet in a very equine way.

Then why wouldn’t I recommend the books to high school students? In contrast to the infrequent and non-explicit sex in the other two books, this series is overflowing with graphic sex. It’s the rare chapter that doesn’t have at least one encounter that would get an NC-17 rating if the books were movies. Even in the nonsexual scenes, there is frequent nudity, caused largely by the fact that most of the orders have to strip in order to shapeshift into their order form. While none of that bothers me, it’s not something I would put on a high school reading list. Nor would I recommend it for someone more comfortable with clean, sweet romance or similar genres. But for post-high school readers who are comfortable with the subject matter, it’s a great read.

(feature imaged copyrighted by Ingrid Pakats and licensed from Shutterstock for editorial use)

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