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5 YA books for fall that give academia vibes

Meghan Collins Sullivan
/
NPR

What better way to get in the mood for back to school (or reconcile yourself to the fact that your school days are long over) than with a book that luxuriates in the academia aesthetic?

These five fall YA releases offer up eerie magics, mysterious buildings, tentative friendships — and a whole lot of excellent excuses for why your homework didn't get done!

A Study in Drowning

Barred from her university's literature program because of her gender, Effy has resigned herself to being the only girl in the architecture department instead. When the estate of her favorite author, Emrys Myrddin, puts out a call for designs to rebuild his family home, Effy figures she has nothing to lose. Myrddin's most famous book, Angharad, means everything to anxious, dream-plagued Effy. When she is selected to journey south to Hiraeth Manor and put her architectural plan into action, it seems like the opportunity she has longed for to get closer to Myrddin's work.

But when she arrives at the remote manor, nothing is the way she imagined it. The whole place is crumbling into the sea, Myrddin's son is mercurial, and his widow has hidden herself away but doesn't seem to want Effy in the house. Worst of all, Effy discovers there's already another student from the university in residence – a young man determined to shatter the legacy of her beloved idol. The longer she spends immersed in the world that produced her favorite novel, the more she wonders if perhaps her new rival is correct, and there's more to Angharad than meets the eye.

Having greatly enjoyed Ava Reid's previous two adult fantasy novels, I was very excited to delve into her first foray into YA fantasy, and A Study in Drowning does not disappoint. The folkloric worldbuilding that I expected from being familiar with her work really shines through, creating a gothic, sea-water-sodden atmosphere that immersed me completely in the story.

When the book begins, Effy seems like such a fragile, timid character. Soon we begin to see that beneath her damsel in distress exterior is a veritable ocean of rage and resourcefulness, and her journey to self-realization is deeply satisfying. Although only the opening and closing chapters take place at an actual university, the passion and discovery of scholarly work infuses the book from start to finish.

The Forest Demands its Due

Everyone thinks that Douglas should be grateful for a second chance. After being accused of starting a fire that killed multiple people, the opportunity to start fresh at a fancy prep school like Regent Academy should be a golden one, even if being Black, queer, and on a scholarship sets him apart. But the problem is that Douglas senses that things are not right at this remote school in Vermont. There's something in the forest that surrounds it — something that speaks to Douglas day and night, threatening his safety and that of all his fellow students.

Then Douglas witnesses a boy being brought into the infirmary with potentially fatal wounds. The next day, everyone except for Douglas seems to have forgotten that the injured boy ever existed. Soon Douglas finds himself caught up in a conspiracy that has plagued Regent Academy for generations. He may be the only one who can stop the killing and break the curse that holds the school's founding families captive. But will he want to?

Having attended a remote school in Vermont myself and having walked home through the dark woods on more than one occasion, I can attest that the creepy forest atmosphere that permeates this book is on point. The folk-horror aesthetic is generally under-used in YA fantasy, and it works here to excellent effect as Douglas digs deeper into the history of a place where he feels so othered, only to discover that he is the only one who can untangle the age-old curse.

For a book set at a school, there is a distinct lack of any sort of schoolwork. At one point, Douglas is even excused from even going to class indefinitely so that he can focus on the bigger problems at hand. While the trappings of scholarly activity are missing, the book does capture that insular feeling of a remote boarding school, where your whole world gets condensed into the lives of the people who surround you. That feeling defines Kosoko Jackson's book, setting the stage for the decisions Douglas inevitably makes.

Into the Bright Open

When Mary Craven's parents die, she's sent to live with an uncle she's never met in the wilds of Ontario. But when she arrives, she discovers that her uncle is always away on business, and the house is run by a staff of Métis locals who soon have her shedding the angry, prim persona of her old life. She grows very close to charismatic Sophie, who roams fearlessly through the forest, and then finds a friend in her cousin, Olive, who has been hidden away at the top of the house, bedridden with some mysterious ailment.

Also hidden away is a walled garden that Mary and Sophie discover, locked up tight, and they begin to suspect it contains even more family secrets. But just as they begin to explore, Olive's stepmother returns to the house. Under her malicious rule, everything that Mary has grown to love may be at risk.

This remix of The Secret Garden takes a classic and transposes it to a new and compelling time and place, trading the English countryside for the forests of early 20th century Georgian Bay. Cherie Dimaline is a celebrated Canadian author in the wake of her stunning breakout The Marrow Thieves, and I was thrilled to read a story that resonated with me so much as a child reimagined through her Indigenous perspective. The joy that Mary discovers in opening her heart to people who have a less inhibited worldview translates so perfectly to this new setting.

As an avid gardener and as someone who was particularly entranced by the role gardening plays in the original Mary's awakening, I was at first a little disappointed that the secret garden itself is not as important in this version of the story, trading the transformative power of horticulture for the majesty of the wilds. But as I reflected on how this reimagining breaks down the colonialist trappings of its inspirational text, I came to appreciate the beauty of this metaphorical shift and the subtle implications it makes about nature and our relationship to it.

I admit that this is not technically a book that involves academia, but I've always felt like The Secret Garden captures that atmosphere of integrating into a new place with new friends and figuring out who you want to be.

A Hundred Vicious Turns

Rat doesn't want to be a student at Bellamy Arts. Rat never intends to do magic again, and the last thing they need is to have everyone wondering why the heir of one of the most important arcane families only studies the theory of magic and not the practice. But Rat isn't safe at home, not when they may accidentally open up doors to other realms without meaning to and usher through an ancient being that takes the form of a terrifying knight. Bellamy Arts is the only place where they can be safe.

Little did they expect that the one person who knows how dangerous they are would also be newly enrolled at Bellamy. Rat's former best friend Harker is the only person who understands how badly Rat has messed things up with their magic, and it soon becomes clear that Rat's previous mistakes are still hanging over Harker's head. He is determined to unravel whatever secrets are necessary to gain power and protect himself from further harm, regardless of Rat's plans. But the supposed safety of Bellamy Arts can't protect either of them from the knight and the dark powers she controls.

For those who especially enjoyed the secret map shenanigans and sneaking around hidden room antics of a certain series to which all YA magic school books are now inevitably compared, Lee Paige O'Brien's A Hundred Vicious Turns delivers on a similar feeling while creating a safe space for queer readers (Rat is nonbinary and Harker is trans). The lady knight antagonist provides some very charismatic menace, and becomes an intriguing character as the story progresses.

Once again, for a book set at a school, the characters concern themselves very little with class and assignments, opting instead to focus on extra curricular activities like getting into mortal danger and unearthing unsavory secrets. And that's fine, but I did feel like I might have enjoyed a bit more grounding in the setting, as well as more excuses for the estranged characters to be forced together sooner. In the end, this definitely feels like the first part of a bigger story, so perhaps the follow-up will delve more deeply into the world of Bellamy Arts.

Damned If You Do

Cordelia doesn't remember making a deal with a demon. As far as she knows, her horrible father left town one night, and her life has been much better ever since. When she begins noticing little things that don't quite make sense, she tries not to think about them. Between being stage manager for the school play and hiding her feelings for her best friend Veronica, she has enough on her plate.

Then the school's new guidance counselor pulls her into his office and reveals that he's the demon she traded a piece of her soul to in order to get rid of her father for good. The memories come pouring back in, and all she wants to do is forget again. But the demon has a new deal on offer. She can have that piece of her soul back if she helps him trap a much worse demon — one who poses a threat to the entire town.

There aren't enough likable demons in YA literature these days, and Alex Brown's book does an interesting job of introducing multiple characters as threats, then turning them into allies, succinctly making the point that hell is empty and the real devils walk among us. I did find that there's a bit of dissonance as the story cracks wise one moment, then deals in the morality of sending an abusive parent to literal hell the next, and I wonder if perhaps it might have resonated a bit more for me if the stakes and motivations were more cohesive with the tone. But Damned if You Do definitely feels like it's walking in the footsteps of demon-dealing pop culture predecessors like Buffy, which quite freely mixed comedy and emotional drama, so perhaps it's baked into the genre. Regardless, this imaginative book manages to capture both the thrills of demon slaying and the thrills of mounting a school play with equal panache.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Caitlyn Paxson

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