The Magic School Trope: Understanding Fantasy’s Rules of Recycling
Let’s begin with the blurb for The Doorway God:
The Seasons are coming to Janus University, and Fay's and Sam’s lives will never be the same.
Through last year’s deadly Trials, Fay and Sam gained admittance to the magical university, and the coming of autumn signals the start of the school year. But both of them have goals beyond their studies. For Fay, it’s finding a way to contain the ancient and evil spirit of Winter, which has no regard for human life. Fay has vowed to never let Winter kill again—but working with the school’s headmaster, Didas, is a risk. Didas cannot see past the potential power he can draw from Fay, and since Fay’s boyfriend and familiar, Tyler, is away at Tufts University, Fay might have to face his possession—and his dreams of four mysterious figures—on his own terms.
While trying to help Fay, Sam seeks information about her mother’s past in the magical world of Gaia, but will she like what she uncovers? To survive, Fay and Sam must make alliances, but it’s harder than ever to tell friend from enemy.
It should be pretty clear from the blurb that this book is going to be treading on familiar ground for most people even the slightest bit familiar with the fantasy genre. Rowling hit on a note with her series that continues to resonate to this day, and all it takes is a quick glance at a lot of today’s best-selling books to see that the concept of a magic school as a fantasy trope is alive and well – and more importantly, it is being used by a lot of people.
Here’s the thing: People who come into the fantasy genre expecting something entirely new are going to leave disappointed. That’s not the point of stepping into what is arguably one of the oldest genres out there, one that follows the oral tradition set out by questionably-existing figures like Homer thousands of years before us. Fantasy is the genre of myth, of stories about the gods and nature shared around a fire when the night around us is dark and cold. Everyone can and should have their own take on that, but we’re all coming from a similar starting point: the shared stories that make up our cultures and histories. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that there are next to no stories out there that could be considered completely original, especially in the fantasy genre. Moreso, those that try to be completely original tend not to be very good. Everyone has a trope they love – and I see you wincing at the use of “trope” like it’s a bad word, so let me just posit that it doesn’t have to be. Fantasy relies on readers first connecting to the part of the story that is familiar, and then from that acceptance moving out to enjoy the rest of this new world that the author has crafted for them.
Let’s look at one of my favorite books out there right now, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. Kvothe’s story is, in my humble opinion, a literary masterpiece and something I’m going to carry with me for the rest of my life. It also – surprise – features Kvothe going to the Arcanum, a university where students study the inner workings of magic and seek to increase their understanding and mastery of it? Sound familiar? And yet no one who’s read both books would ever confuse them with each other. The similarities between Harry Potter and Kvothe, Arliden’s son, start and end with the magic school trope. It’s a trope used because it’s engaging and cool, and writers can have a blast building a world around it or that just happens to feature it. And that’s the fun of fantasy. Put your own spin on an established trope, and see what happens.
If you’d like to see my take on the magic school trope, consider getting a copy of The Doorway God, and Aspect of Winter too if you haven’t already.
Check out The Doorway God today!