If you enjoyed Harry Potter, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, or Game of Thrones, then you will probably have a great time with The Scholomance Series by Naomi Novik.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
The trilogy starts with the pedal to the metal. Soul sucking monsters, heroism, and drama in a boarding school for magical teens.
At first it felt like I was reading the journal of an overly melodramatic teenage girl, El. Happily, this feeling dissipated as El’s personal history and motivations became clear. El’s character has layers of depth through her choices and adventures that surpass the average Fantasy novel character.
The Scholomance is a school for young wizard kids. What differentiates wizards and “mundanes” (muggles) is that wizards can hold magical energy in their bodies and spend it on spells, alchemy (potions), or artifice (magical item construction).
Ethical magical energy, called mana, can be generated through personal effort like doing pushups. Unethical magical energy, called malia, is acquired by stealing it from the environment or other living beings.
Monsters (“mals”) roam the world and are attracted to magical energy. Wizard kids have lots of magical energy and aren’t great at defending themselves, so mals target them in particular. Lucky kids get shipped to the Scholomance school where the survival rate of youth is higher than outside. Mals come in a variety of forms, from little flesh eating grubs to masses that consume and torture you without ever letting you die. The school has tons of them and it is commonplace for kids to get maimed, poisoned, or killed from mal attacks as they go about their school day.
Everyone shares a pretty dim outlook. Everything is a life or death decision, from where to sit in the cafeteria, when to gather new magical supplies, hairstyle choices, tooth brushing rituals, and how to modify and arrange the furniture in your cell-like room.
El’s great grandmother’s prophecy predicts that she will become an evil wizard and destroy much of what the wizarding world cares about. She is determined to escape that future, despite all her talents indicating that it’s pretty likely. She struggles to do small scale, benign magic and has particular talent for spells of death and destruction, to the point of accidentally inventing stuff like a spell to summon a supervolcano during a bad mood.
Her relationships throughout the book are quite nice. The focus is on friendship more than romance, and while there is a male love interest in a strong boy character, there are at least three strong girl characters who are very much their own people with unique relationships to each other and El.
There’s a decent amount of exposition through El narrating context and what her impressions are of what others must be thinking or feeling at a given time, but it doesn’t get tiresome. The politics and priorities of such a dangerous and bizarre world would be hard to reveal fully without some explanations.
There is a bit of a Patrick Rothfuss Kingkiller Chronicle thing going on where the main character is troubled but also just happens to be the absolute best at everything. At least El’s shortcomings are emphasized and not all of them are permanently overcome. I like that in certain fantasy like Harry Potter or Earthsea, the main characters aren’t particularly “genius” at anything, and their success comes largely from their internal struggles to be brave, do the right thing, and endure during hard and scary times. El and her friends have internal struggles, but often happen to be extremely gifted as well.
There is a reveal/twist in the third book that I thought was really well executed. For me, I was reminded of the ending of The Gods Themselves, which I read in college and had to shut the book on the bus and mentally freak out about for a while when the reveal happened.
I would really recommend these novels. They were engaging and human, and I wish there were more of them!