Unseen universities, invisible colleges, vanishing departments even
June 15, 2018 1:39 PM   Subscribe

I would like to read some books that are set in magical (or possibly science fictional) universities and colleges, or about magical or science fictional students and professors. (Note: Not The Magicians.) Further details and previous reads inside.

In an ideal world, these would be fairly light-hearted books - some pleasant world-building coupled with, you know, dreaming spires, perhaps an uncomplicated romance and a villain who isn't too villainous.

I have read and enjoyed several Terry Pratchett books of this general type, the utterly excellent and wonderful Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe and the grim (and really, let's be honest, kind of shit about gender) Iron Dragon's Daughter.

I'm not especially looking for magical boarding school books - my needs in that area are met. And I'm not looking for The Magicians, many apologies to all who sail on her.

Just books about being at college, except, you know, magic (or possibly science fictional). Kinda gay would be a plus but not required.
posted by Frowner to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 95 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps “To Say Nothing of the Dog”, by Connie Willis?

Light hearted, loosely related to Oxford University, has academics, some romance, time travel, and broadly inspired by Three Men in a Boat. Maybe not as purely collegiate as you might prefer, but good.
posted by siskin at 1:50 PM on June 15, 2018 [6 favorites]

The Strugatsky brothers' Monday Begins on Saturday is set in a research institute rather than a university, but it is very much in the ballpark you're after. (It's an institute for research in magic.)
posted by languagehat at 1:59 PM on June 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics is light-hearted and better than the title might make one expect. as I remember it, though, the college part is only half the book. but a good half. same goes for the sequel, which I believe also has a solid half of it devoted to good wholesome academics and then a bunch of spy business I don't remember at all.

& Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, although I am guessing you've either already read it or already know you would/wouldn't like it.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:05 PM on June 15, 2018 [10 favorites]

Do you mind if it's a little YA themed? I very much enjoyed the Evil Genius series by Catherine Jenks

And of course the comic SuperMutant Magic Academy
posted by jessamyn at 2:05 PM on June 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

And my partner suggests Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor, and its two sequels, about a student who is the first of her people to get a place at the galactic university.

Relatively little of it is actually at the university, but the university and what it means to be a student is very central to the story.
posted by siskin at 2:06 PM on June 15, 2018 [11 favorites]

His Dark Materials trilogy, set in a fictional Oxford where magical takes the place of electricity. a little fraught, but a worthy read.

Johnathan Strange an Mr Norrell set in fictional England, and they establish a magical college.
posted by ananci at 2:10 PM on June 15, 2018 [7 favorites]

The Guardians of the Flame series is about a group of college kids playing Dungeons and Dragons, who are transported into that world by their professor/Dungeon Master. (I believe it turns out he's a wizard from the fantasy world who was banished to ours, and is using them to open a portal so he can return).
posted by Unsomnambulist at 2:21 PM on June 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of magic college in The Kingkiller Chronicle. Lots of non-college stuff too, but getting into the school and time spent there features prominently. In that world, magic is sort of like science, and they have science too. So the e.g. protagonist at one point comments that alchemy has a lot in common with chemistry, but they are also different.
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:24 PM on June 15, 2018 [13 favorites]

Came to recommend Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics, glad to see it's already recommended. I know it has a sequel but I cannot recall whether that also involves the college.

As I recall, some of Martha Wells' Fall of Ile-Rien novels take place at a magical university, although it is certainly not the primary location of the narrative.

I'm currently 3/4 of the way through the Alexandra Quick series of Harry Potter fanfiction novels, available on Fanfiction.net. They're the story of an American Muggle-raised girl who goes to Charmbridge, rather like Hogwarts. But there's a ton of much more complicated politics and awareness of racial & ethnic issues. That said, there are only 4 novels and I don't think there will be any more...
posted by suelac at 2:30 PM on June 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I still reread A College of Magics when I'm grumpy.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:31 PM on June 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Victoria Goddard's Stargazy Pie &ff. are not set in a university, but their light-late-renaissance world is organized around its universities and scholarship (and scholarships). "We are men of Avilion" means "So we will spend this afternoon doing library research before dashing off to be dashing".
posted by clew at 2:35 PM on June 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Unwillingly to Earth is a science fiction university doing sfnal sociology, applied. Written yonks ago.
posted by clew at 2:39 PM on June 15, 2018

Salamander by David D. Friedman is about researchers at a magical university.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:41 PM on June 15, 2018

The Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones is set at a magical university and has a non-human protagonist. It is the sequel to The Dark Lord of Derkholm but it's not necessary to have read that first, though you may also enjoy it.
posted by Athanassiel at 2:45 PM on June 15, 2018 [7 favorites]

Off on a tangent to what you're after:

Anathem, Neal Stephenson.

Big tangent 1: In a setting where colleges are also kinda secular monasteries and where civilization has been rising and crashing for thousands of years

Big tangent 2: The tone is mostly still light but there's a lot of people talking to each other about quantum mechanics and consciousness, maaaaan.

But fun worldbuilding, towering spires, a relatively uncomplicated romance, and really no actual villains.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 2:47 PM on June 15, 2018 [7 favorites]

A Wizard of Earthsea is one of the originals, just in case you missed it. And if it is known to you, the much more recent Tales from Earthsea includes stories about the founding of the School on Roke and as a mature Le Guin work is much more feminist.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:22 PM on June 15, 2018 [7 favorites]

A College of Magics is really amazing. My partner gave it a try at my suggestion and ended up reading and rereading it so many times that both covers and about ten pages from both the beginning and end are currently missing and presumed lost.

I didn't like A Scholar of Magics quite as well, and I preferred Patricia Wrede's sections of the Sorcery and Cecilia series to Stevermer's, but Stevermer has unplumbed depths of talent I wish she was doing more to explore -- though I see from her Wikipedia article that back in the early 80s she wrote a couple of novels set in Borgian Rome that I'll have to try to get hold of.

But speaking of Patricia Wrede, her Frontier Magic series took place in, around and at the behest of various colleges of magic, and I thought all three books of that were very good and quite satisfying, and only seemed to have improved on recent rereading.
posted by jamjam at 3:32 PM on June 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm not going to argue it's really good, but it is fun. The web serial novel The Gods are Bastards is set at a university in a magical world experiencing the industrial revolution. Lots of magic, no one is truly evil (at worst they are the stereotypical sociopath without any sympathy or empathy), etc. Definitely hits the gay bit, even has trans characters which feel (to a cis straight guy) fairly well done. There's mention of sexual violence and there is a definite abusive relationship, but it is kept well off screen and not glamorized.
posted by Hactar at 4:00 PM on June 15, 2018

Just a note that A Scholar of Magics does heavily involve a magical university, as well as different approaches to magic. I love it and A College of Magics equally.
posted by epj at 4:02 PM on June 15, 2018

Arcanos Unraveled is maybe exactly what you’re looking for! It’s set at a magical college hidden on the Michigan campus and the protagonist is an adjunct dealing with academic politics and a magical crisis.
posted by leesh at 4:18 PM on June 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

nth-ing siskin's partner. Binti and the sequels are wonderful books full of imagination and emotion and just plain good writing.
posted by Gotanda at 5:58 PM on June 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Patricia McKillip's Alphabet of Thorn: "In the kingdom of Raine, a vast realm at the edge of the world, an orphaned baby girl is found by a palace librarian and raised to become a translator. Years later, the girl -- named Nepenthe -- comes in contact with a mysterious book written in a language of thorns that no one, not even the wizards at Raine's famous Floating School for mages, can decipher. "
posted by dhruva at 7:42 PM on June 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Name of the Wind -- Follows (kinda) the protagonist through childhood and into his studies at a magical university and is very, very worth your time.
(What SaltySalticid said)
posted by matrixclown at 8:08 PM on June 15, 2018

Not a book, but Elsewhere University is an ongoing collective project about a university that shares Faerie land.
posted by divabat at 9:46 PM on June 15, 2018

A sideways suggestion, based on your request for light-hearted books with pleasant world-building. Consider the plight of a dentist, abducted by aliens who need a cavity filled, ending up as the first human at the Intergalactic University of Dentistry. Prostho Plus.
posted by dws at 10:32 PM on June 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams has a lot of fun sci-fi magicish goings of at Cambridge.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:24 AM on June 16, 2018

Wicked has a great section at university in Oz. The book is fairly dark, though. (Much more so than the musical)
posted by lunasol at 3:48 PM on June 16, 2018

Consider the plight of a dentist, abducted by aliens who need a cavity filled, ending up as the first human at the Intergalactic University of Dentistry. Prostho Plus.

But it is written by Piers Anthony. :( I agree though, what a wonderful novel.
posted by Literaryhero at 3:35 AM on June 17, 2018

You might be interested in the Steerswoman series, by Rosemary Kirstein. The main character is part of an itenerant order of knowledge-gatherers in a mideval-ish society. They have a headquarters, and some scenes are set there in later books, but the focus is on the main character's travels and discoveries. The steerswomen's order has its nemeses in the wizards, another order who jealously guards their powerful knowledge. Sparks fly when the main character discovers things she shouldn't, and the story takes some amazing turns. Gets into really complex and interesting territory about who gets access to what knowledge. Truly excellent, and one of my favorite series, but the college setting is not an enormous part. Best entered blind.
posted by Rinku at 11:39 AM on June 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

OK, this isn't set in a college or university, but otherwise it's what you're looking for: Tom Holt's The Portable Door (link is for Canadian Amazon). The follow ups are In Your Dreams and Earth, Air, Fire, And Custard.
posted by purplesludge at 9:11 AM on June 18, 2018

Having trawled my comfort-rereading stacks:

Some of Barbara Hambly's fantasy books spend a lot of time in the mountain/retreat/city/university of the Council of Wizards, though none are centered there that I recall. The Windrose Chronicles mostly, I think.

Patricia McKillip's Bards of Bone Plain is about writing a thesis, and lots of it is set in the school. And her early Riddle-Master visits and revisits the college of riddles.

Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead starts with the protagonist being thrown out of her college and includes a fight with her ex-PI. It's about research politics and psychology though it isn't set in a university.

Girl Genius' first volume gets her thrown out of her lab, but many of the recurring characters met in college and refer to it often. Lots of industry/academia crossover, so to speak.

Carla Speed McNeill's Finder: Mystery Date is in a college and on a fieldwork trip.

Connie Willis' Bellwether is in an industry research lab. I think several of her short stories are set in academia.

Seems to me that some of Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci books are set in a school, although maybe it's all just an educational household.
posted by clew at 10:34 AM on June 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

Most of the ones I came to suggest have already been mentioned. Here are some college-related ones I haven't seen here yet. In most, the college is not centered (as I said, my first picks already done been picked.) I tried to put these in order of how much they might suit your needs, with the most appropriate picks first:

Doorways In The Sand, by Roger Zelazny. Science fiction. Main character is a college student, which is very important early on but gradually becomes less so. Lighthearted. Don't recall it being kinda gay.

Always Human, by Ari Walkingnorth. Science fiction webcomic. Yeah, I know it's a webcomic, not a novel, but I thought you might like it. At least one of the main characters is a college student, and her studies come up frequently, but they are not the main focus of the plot. It is lighthearted, although it deals with some real and serious issues. It is SUPER gay.

The Alpennia Series, by Heather Rose Jones. Fantasy. A recurring subplot is that one of the major characters wishes to attend college classes at a time and place when women do not typically do so. It is not a hugely important element of the books thus far, but it seems to be leading towards her founding her own women's college in coming books. These are not always lighthearted, but definitely not grimdark. The books are SUPER gay.

The House Between the Worlds, by Marian Zimmer Bradley. Fantasy. The main character is a college professor, as is his love interest, and their research gets the plot moving, but the college is not particularly important after that. Not always lighthearted, but not grimdark. Don't recall it being kinda gay. Note: Marian Zimmer Bradley was a terrible person, if that matters to you.

The Kencyrath Series, by P. C. Hodgell. Fantasy. The main character attends military college throughout books 4, 5, and 6, and the college is super-important during that part of it. Yeah, I know that's late in the series, but this is one of the best little-known fantasy series out there, so I thought I'd mention it. Not always lighthearted, but not grimdark. There is some occasional minor gay content or characters, but not enough that I would call the books kinda gay.

The Grisha Trilogy, by Leigh Bardugo. Fantasy. The main character goes to magic college in the first book. It's not lighthearted; it's actually pretty grimdark, albeit in a YA way. I do not recall it being kinda gay.
posted by kyrademon at 7:57 AM on June 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Tales of MU by Alexandra Erin who I've recently seen mentioned on MeFi occasionally is a webfiction story that meets a lot of your criteria, but it's definitely not your ideal world story. It is set in a modernized D&D world at a magical university where people take majors in things like Enchanting. Early on it's very queer, and also pretty dark, dealing with a lot of things you'd put trigger warnings on these days (abuse, racism from humans toward non-humans), and quite focused on sex early on. I have not kept up with the story past the first couple of years she was writing it, and don't know what starting with the beginning of year 2 like she's suggesting on the About page I linked to is like. It's close enough to what you're asking for I think it's worth the suggestion.
posted by Caduceus at 11:19 AM on June 23, 2018

Twenty year old me really really really enjoyed Matt Ruff's Fool on the Hill. Matches what you're looking for to a T.

Another one that I enjoyed back in the day was Views from the Oldest House by Richard Grant. I really enjoyed Grant's work and never understood why he wasn't more popular. Reviews for Oldest House are diverse. My reading tastes are not diverse, if "diverse" means really weird. That said, it was an odd book, that I nonetheless quite liked.

Kingkiller Chronicles is fantastically good, but only some of it is based in a university. There is a novella that is absolutely magical called The Slow Regard of Silent Things that I urge everybody to read.
posted by ashbury at 10:02 PM on June 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

I instantly thought of Pamela Dean's "Tam Lin." Here are a few quotes from Jo Walton's review of it (warning, spoilers if you click through. Though if you know the ballad of Tam Lin they're not really spoilers).
Tam Lin is based on an old Scottish ballad. It’s the story of a group of friends at a liberal arts college in Minnesota in the 1970s, talking, reading, discussing, seeing plays, falling in love, meeting the Queen of Elfland, coping with ghosts, worrying about contraception and being sacrificed to Hell.
The central thing the book is doing is college as magic garden. The whole experience of going to university is magical, in a sense, is a time away from other time, a time that influences people’s whole lives but is and isn’t part of the real world. College is where you are, as Janet puts it, paid to read for four years. It’s also many people’s first experience of being away from home and of finding congenial friends. But it isn’t, and can’t be, your real life. It’s finite and bounded. It falls between childhood and adulthood. And it’s full of such fascinating and erudite people who can quote Shakespeare. Where did they come from? They certainly can’t have come from high school, and “Under the hill” is Tam Lin‘s very interesting answer.
You may not like it if you didn’t feel the need to go to, or hated, university—you may find yourself passionately envious though. I mean, I was a Classics major myself, but not only did I never meet any magic people (so unfair!) but I was at a British university where I did nothing but Classics for three years, never mind all those fascinating “breadth” requirements. (Incidentally, I’ve known a couple of parents who have given this book to their teenage kids who are bored with high school and can’t see the point of more education. This works.)
(I read it myself as a high school senior 20 years ago. Along with Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night it gave me rather unrealistic expectations for college. On the other hand I did everything I could to make my college experience more like this ideal, and I don't regret any of it.)
posted by OnceUponATime at 7:47 AM on June 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm just now finishing Arcadia by Iain Pears (and have loved it). It's (mostly) not set at a university, but has professors and scholars as some of its main characters. And (in a playful, fantastic way) it focuses on how the Academy shapes or might shape society.
posted by pjenks at 6:18 AM on June 26, 2018

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan is set at a school in a magic land, not necessarily a magic school. It is kinda gay and hilarious.
posted by bangles at 1:35 PM on June 26, 2018

Sam Hughes' Ra fits pretty well into this, if light on the collegiate aspects:
Magic is real.
Discovered in the 1970s, magic is now a bona fide field of engineering. There's magic in heavy industry and magic in your home. It's what's next after electricity.
Student mage Laura Ferno has designs on the future: her mother died trying to reach space using magic, and Laura wants to succeed where she failed. But first, she has to work out what went wrong. And who her mother really was.
And whether, indeed, she's dead at all...
posted by corbie at 2:40 PM on June 26, 2018

I saw Nnedi Okorafor's Binti suggested upthread, but I also really loved Akata Witch for some "going to magic school" fun. There is also a sequel, Akata Warrior, which I am looking forward to reading.

If you like audiobooks, the narrator for these is fantastic and it really helped me to hear the names and places pronounced properly. The music of the language shone through her reading in a way my own mental voice could not have captured.
posted by chatongriffes at 8:28 AM on June 27, 2018

Some of Barbara Hambly's fantasy books spend a lot of time in the mountain/retreat/city/university of the Council of Wizards, though none are centered there that I recall.

Dog Wizard (book #3) is centered there.

(All of Hambly's books are brilliant.)
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:40 AM on June 28, 2018

Cecilia Tan's Magic University series is LGBT erotica, set in a Hogwarts-esque university. Here's the first book synopsis and link to prologue/first chapter.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 7:52 PM on June 29, 2018

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