There have been so many fantastic new magic school stories coming out that soon I will be able to make a new Magical Middle School list! In the meantime, here’s the latest I’ve read.
by Dhonielle Clayton
Henry Holt & Co., 2022
Read from library copy.
Ella Durand has grown up near New Orleans in a magical family that practices the traditional arts of Conjure. Up until now, though, Conjure has been considered somewhere between lesser and downright wicked by the rest of the magical community, since they specialize in guiding people through the afterlife. The other community’s members call themselves Marvellers, and call the white light of their inner power starlight. Though Ella is proud to be a Conjurer, she’s also joined her father in dreaming of an integrated future. To that end, she’s enrolling at the Arcanum Training Institute, a sky-borne boarding school for Marveller youth.
Her work is already cut out for – to show that Conjure is a legitimate discipline and that she can learn traditional Marveller practices as well. But she’s working against a mountain of prejudice – her first set of roommates have her moved to a new room while she’s sleeping at night, and professors give her demerits for behaviors they let slide with other students. Ella isn’t happy about being given a guide, either, but fellow first-year Jason, Black like her, but youngest in a large family of Marvellers, is friendly and persistent, as well as good with the adorable magical creatures of the Arcanum. Her new roommate, blond Brigit, is prickly with having been summoned to the Arcanum without any knowledge of what’s going on. Despite the general aura of mistrust, her advisor, elixirs professor Masterji Thakur, is kind and supportive.
(I should also note that many of the professors, good and bad, have at least the last names of real authors – the welcome letter, for example, is signed by Laura Ruby, while one less pleasant teacher is named Nabokov. This did lead me to Google some unfamiliar names to see if they were authors or not, but whether this is delightful or distracting is up to you.)
Then, things start going wrong both inside and outside the Arcanum. Brigit is desperate to get back to her old life despite her clearly magical knitting skills while Jason’s beloved and adorable magical creatures are falsely accused of mischief. Though the adults tell Ella to keep herself safe, she knows that she might have the only clues to what’s going on, and will be expelled if she can’t solve the mystery. Can the three of them combine their skills to save the day?
Any magical school story will inevitably draw comparisons to Harry Potter, just as portal fantasies will be compared to Narnia. But as you, discerning reader, undoubtedly already know, it takes more than a magic school setting to live up to Harry Potter. The school must have that perfect balance of whimsy and tradition, with room for the young reader to see themselves attending. The characters must have emotions and character arcs are believable no matter how outlandish the circumstances, and of course, they must save the day in a dramatic and satisfying way.
So does The Marvellers live up to that? It certainly has a more inclusive student body – I loved that while Ella’s Conjure tradition is looked down upon, there are many well-regarded Black and brown students from places like Africa and India. Even without Conjure, the Arcanum is already a far more diverse place than Hogwarts ever was. I felt like I still wasn’t quite sure enough of the nuances of the magical houses to say off the bat which one I would belong to, but I’m definitely open to learning more about that in future books. It’s also filled with magic that would be delightful to experience, from the animated food to the stellacity-powered transportation. So far, the villain isn’t quite as horrific as Voldemort – but I’m really just fine with that. I really did like all three of our main characters as well as Ella’s family. I’d say this is an outstanding option to give kids who are either looking for more like Harry Potter or wanting to avoid J.K.’s nuttiness altogether. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of Ella’s journey through the Arcanum!