Guest Post: A Handy Guide for Choosing Your Institute of Magical Education

After Poppy’s beautiful “That Moment When…” post, we desperately wanted to have her and her artwork back!

Poppy is a long-time fan of SBTB and loves cats, books and coffee, in that order. She illustrates The Loo Cats, an imaginative series starring her rescue cats in the most fantastical, improbable scenarios. The series is an ode to four spunky felines who survived abuse and abandonment before they found their forever home. Now they are elderly and ill, and can only travel in their human’s wild, colour-saturated imagination – but they continue to bring delight and iridescence to the lives of those around them. Join them on their adventures @geninepoppyloo on Instagram!

The recent Harry Potter-inspired Rec Leagues (WHO ELSE LOVED THE SLYTHERIN-SLYTHERIN PAIRINGS!) reminded me that in my part of the world, it’s school shopping season. This means a whole legion of young ‘uns are now busy angsting over and applying for universities, aka searching for the best place to spend three years studying something they’re likely never to touch again after graduation.

However, not everyone’s cut out for degrees in accounting or biology or even Puppet Arts. Some of us may be aspiring for a more, shall we say, magical experience. Some of us may wand-a seek a higher craft for a spell. (Sorry. Heh.)

If this describes you, you’ve come to the right place! I love YA, NA, and fantasy, and squarely in the intersection of that Venn diagram are books on young ‘uns learning magic. I therefore consider myself an authority* (*a half-baked, third-rate one) on institutes for magic learning. Here then, are my recommendations for three top-notch magic schools.

(No there won’t be Harry Potter and Hogwarts here, but coincidentally, these three have some sort of Harry Potter reference or comparison in one way or another. However, I chose these three not for any HP references, but because they are the schools I’m actually sad I can’t go to ‘cos, well, they don’t exist.)

Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, in The Magicians Trilogy, Lev Grossman

The Magicians
A | BN | K | AB

Described as Harry Potter with “sex, drugs and existential frustration” by Vanity Fair, Brakebills is the training ground for Quentin Coldwater, Alice Quinn and their outstandingly brilliant band of misfit magicians.

Can you get in?

Only if you get picked out by a magic-spotting globe, then stalked by a panel of school “scouts” for suitability, and finally are able to pass a freakishly difficult exam and interview, as Quentin did: “…later on the test gave him a passage from The Tempest, then asked him to make up a fake language, and then translate the Shakespeare into the made-up language… The test also changed as he took it. The reading comprehension section showed him a paragraph that vanished as he read it, then quizzed him on the contents.”

What are the teachers like?

Quite nice, if you like a rather serious, slightly snobby type (Dean Fogg: “I doubt there’s a more exclusive school of any kind on the continent”) with high expectations and low sympathy for failure (the same Dean: “Stop fucking with us, Quentin!”). There’s also a pretty decent student-teacher ratio – 20 to one, because of aforementioned exclusivity.

Will your friends be cool?

They will be as scary-smart as you – Quentin was described as being so good at calculus that his high school had to outsource his classes – but, as Quentin’s school mate Eliot explained, they will also be “miserable and obsessive”, which Eliot thinks are personality traits of successful magicians.

And will you be able to make… “special friends”?

Because, for a good number of college-age kids, “will I make friends” is almost the same as “will I get laid” – I have that covered for you too. Quentin met the love of his life Alice, who also happened to be the most powerful magician in their grade, and they got plenty of sexin’. There was generally, in fact, plenty of sexin’ all round, including an ill-advised threesome that set off a devastating sequence of events.

What’s on the menu for extra-curricular activities?

Well there’s Fillory, which is a Narnia-inspired (and quite nightmarish) world for you to explore, where you get to try defeating a fantasy-character-turned-megalomaniac, and befriend a bunch of cool other-worldly creatures.

Avoid applying here if…

…you prefer not to ruin your Narnia fantasy, as Fillory has murderous giant bunnies, nymphs who try to lure you into their rivers, arrow-shooting praying mantids and a pair of frankly irritating God rams. (Also you can’t actually apply because you have to be selected.)

Here’s a doodle loosely based on the Fillory Family in full kooky glory – as usual, because #crazycatlady, I’ve taken out Quentin and replaced him with my darling kitty.

A doodle by Poppy of fantasy animals amidst green foliage.

The Folly, in Midnight Riot (and the rest of the Peter Grant series), Ben Aaronovitch

Midnight Riot
A | BN | K | AB

Constable Peter Grant – a lovable and slightly incompetent young cop in London, joined Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale from a very special branch of the Met and began his training as an apprentice police wizard.

Can you get in?

Quite likely, if you believe in the spirit world. Peter had shown no special ability or knack for magic, but he believed he saw a ghost, which brought him to Inspector Nightingale’s attention. Refreshingly, Peter continued to be slightly not-great at his job (although he improves as the series progresses) and often struggled with beginner spells. There’s hope for the rest of us.

What are the teachers like?

There’s only one, Inspector Nightingale, and Peter got off to a hilarious start with him:

“He carried a silver-topped cane and I knew without looking that his shoes were handmade. All he needed was a slightly ethnic younger boyfriend and I’d have had to call the cliché police. When he strolled over to me, I thought he might be looking for that slightly ethnic boyfriend after all.”

Luckily, Peter pulled his head out of his ass and applied himself appropriately to training under probably-the-most-powerful wizard in Europe with an endearingly dry sense of humour.

“So magic is real,” I said. “Which makes you a… what?”

“A wizard.”

“Like Harry Potter?”

Nightingale sighed. “No,” he said. “Not like Harry Potter.”

“In what way?”

“I’m not a fictional character,” Nightingale said.

By the way, the student-teacher ratio at the Folly (also known as “mumbo jumbo voodoo X-files shit” by other Inspectors of the Met) is also pretty excellent. For much of the series it’s one to one, and three to one at the most.

Will your friends be cool?

Peter didn’t have any classmates, but he did have a magic-spotting dog and a scary, silent housemate – and house maid – named Molly. He did get to work with other people from the police and beyond, though. In school-speak, think of it as cross-faculty projects?

And… “friends”?

The short answer is, yes. (No, not Molly. Not the dog, either!) But you’d have to wait. Peter eventually got a romance with a river goddess whom he met in the course of his training, but it was a slow burn. So this means that, whilst enrolling in The Folly wouldn’t allow you to get jiggy with fellow classmates, it will eventually give you the chance to mix-and-mate with other magical folks. In more school-speak – umm, plenty of fieldwork opportunities?

Extra-curricular activities?

It’s on-the-job training, so you’d be well-occupied with your day job. Just as well – you’d be needed to first track down a ghost gone mad and an incredibly powerful evil wizard. Your stakeholders would be the aforementioned magical folk, which include all the waterways of London, helpful ghosts, talking foxes and life-sucking vampires.

Avoid applying here if…

…you don’t like the intensive curriculum. Lessons are 24/7. And you have to pay close attention, too – wrong use of magic has terrible consequences. Without the right training, you could end up with “extensive degradation of the cerebral cortex and evidence of intracranial bleeding”. In other (Peter’s) words, your brain could end up like a “diseased cauliflower”.

Oh yes, and doing magic might cause your phone to short-circuit so don’t apply here unless you have a decent mobile plan.

Wondering what Peter’s river goddess girlfriend looks like? Well keep wondering, ‘cos this is nothing like her – it’s less Rivers of London and more Waterways of my Fevered Imagination – but I wanted to doodle a river goddess-inspired piece so here it is!

A doodle by Poppy of her and her black cat on an orange kayak. The water waves blend into the hair of a goddess.

Leopard Knocks, in Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch
A | BN | K | AB

Quite a few review sites refer to Akata Witch as the “Nigerian Harry Potter”, which is a very over-simplistic comparison. The Lawrence Public Library blog explains why beautifully:

…I find myself less and less convinced about that “Nigerian Harry Potter” label. It undersells Okorafor’s storytelling capabilities, and, in particular, her ability to weave deep cultural symbolism into what amounts to both an entertaining read at least on par with Harry Potter combined with a cultural education for readers like myself, who might not know a lot about Nigeria.

We’re brought into the magic world of Leopard People (aka magicians) by Sunny Nwazue, an albino girl who recently moved back to Nigeria from the US, and who’s feeling as fish-out-of-water as you can imagine from that description.

Can you get in?

Most Leopard kids are born to Leopard parents. But! You might be what’s called a “free agent” – a rare Leopard kid whose powers come from nowhere. Have you seen strange visions in a candle? Do you sometimes find the world spinning into interesting shapes and colours? Are you prone to feeling like you have a hidden self that makes you walk and talk differently? If so, congratulations! You might possibly be a Leopard person, if you’re not just drunk or high.

However, if even you have Leopard qualities, you must be able to cross a river with churning waters and a resident ancient water demon who will try to pull you into the river… every time you go to class. That is commitment.

What are the teachers like?

You’d likely have a main teacher – Anatov was the main teacher for Sunny and her course mates Chi Chi, Orlu and Sasha, but each student would eventually be assigned a mentor based on their compatibility and how they performed on the mentor’s test. (One of the tests involved trying to mount and fly a giant bird that pooped a mountain of dung.) There’s also a textbook that acted as a tutor – Fast Facts for Free Agents, which had been written with a curiously rude tone. Witness the instructions for a walking-through-door spell: “Etuk Nwan is very simple juju. If you can’t make this work, I feel sorry for you.”

Will your friends be cool?

Chi Chi, Orlu and Sasha were born to Leopard parents, so they’re familiar with the drill. They took care of Sunny and did a pretty good job of showing her the ropes.

And… “friends”?

Sunny is 12 years old, and her classmates are all teenagers, so we are definitely not going there. (And neither does the book, of course.)

Extra-curricular activities?

Plenty to occupy you outside of your magical training. For starters, there’s the annual Zuma Festival, where Leopard People gather for a weekend of food, crafts, soccer AND a fight-to-death wrestling match. If you’re thinking that escalated quickly, so did the kids. Teacher Anatov explained the brutality:

“Why didn’t they stop it?” Sasha asked.

“Because life doesn’t work that way,” Anatov said. “When things get bad, they don’t stop until you stop the badness – or die.”

This, indeed, came to pass as the kids got embroiled in taking down a serial killer…

TRIGGER WARNING
who had left a trail of mutilated children.

The kids came out triumphant!

Avoid applying if…

…you prefer a less structured education. Despite the inherent awesomeness of learning magic, the educational experience will feel pretty similar to mainstream schools. There are textbooks, homework, projects, and you advance by passing one level after the other.

Also, avoid this place if encountering tungwa is not your thing – these are “glowing balls of flesh that float in the air and explode into tufts of hair and handfuls of teeth.” Ugghh. (These, by the way, actually come from West African stories. Nnedi discussed them in her fantastic blogpost “Is Africa Ready for Science Fiction”.)

The setting for Akata Witch put me in mind of gorgeous West African textile prints. A wonderful hour spent looking up West African prints, and also the scenes of the Zuma Festival on the Zuma Rock have – again, very loosely! – inspired this doodle.

The silhouette of a woman and cat on a cliff. The sky is a pattern of West African prints.

Bonus rec!

If you’re 17, have always been somewhat special or outstanding – even if this takes the form of being especially clumsy and accident-prone – you can also consider applying to The Dragon in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted ( A | BN | K | G | AB ). It’s an exceptionally long period of study of 10 years, but you’ll come out completely changed and armed with a formidable arsenal of magical spells and tools. Warning – the Dragon is exceedingly grumpy, might call you “horse-faced”, and in case you fall in love with him, just know that he’s over a hundred years old.

What are your favourite magic schools (or magic education experience, if it’s not a “proper” school)?

The post Guest Post: A Handy Guide for Choosing Your Institute of Magical Education appeared first on NeedaBook.

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