Tom Brown’s Schooldays is one of those rare books that start a whole genre of British fiction. In its case, it started the Boarding School Story. These stories all tend to fit the same basic pattern; they’d set in a Boarding School and follow the adventures of the children as they grow from immature little brats to grown adults. Classically, these stories tend to range between stories praising wonderful schools (Enid Blyton was fond of those) and schools that are often a foretaste of hell.
[In real life, based on personal experience, I lean to believe more in the latter.]
These stories have many different settings. Malory Towers was set in a girls boarding school; the girls had silly little adventures, played pranks on their teachers and treated sport as serious business. Jennings was set in a similar school for young men. Harry Potter and The Worst Witch were both set in Wizard Schools. There are Finishing Schools, Military Schools and Space Academies. The older the intended audience, the darker the books. Charles Dickens depicted one of the worst boarding schools in fiction in Nicholas Nickleby.
And, I have to confess, Schooled in Magic falls into the same category.
But because these books are about the schools, they tend to ignore a simple question. What do the pupils do on their holidays?
Most boarding school stories rarely address this issue. The very format of the stories – following classes, sports and japes – tells against it. As I see it, the classical boarding school stories don’t focus on what the characters do away from school because it’s simply outside the story’s remit. When such stories do try to follow the characters into adulthood, they tend to have problems because the characters are shaped by the situation at school.
Being in school offers all sorts of room for stories, but it also offers a framework for storytelling that is lacking in the outside world. Authors are often unable to handle their characters outside the school format, so they resort to flashbacks and brief moments of discussion to handle the issue. Why not? The story isn’t about what the pupils did on their holidays?
When I devised the first set of plot arcs for Schooled in Magic, I decided I would try to avoid convention and have a set of books following Emily outside Whitehall School. Emily doesn’t live in our world, a world so familiar that it would be boring; she lives in a whole new universe. The Nameless World offers something stories set in our world can’t match – a whole new world to explore.
And so I came up with the idea of an adventure in Zangaria.
Personally, I would never have visited the homes of my fellow inmates at my boarding school. I saw enough of them during term time. And Emily would probably prefer to stay at Whitehall and spend her holidays in the library. But her closest friends are from Zangaria and so she is (reluctantly) dragged into travelling there for her holidays.
For Emily, this is a step outside the controlled existence she knew at Whitehall – and one hell of a culture shock. She moves from a lower-class existence in America (and then a student lifestyle at Whitehall) to moving among the monarchs, princes and princesses of the Nameless World. Worse, perhaps, one of her friends is going to meet her future husband during the holiday, a husband she won’t have chosen for herself. And yet she thinks this is perfectly normal.
How would an average person react to the blend of staggering wealth and luxury compared to grinding poverty, harsh laws and lives of desperation suffered by the poor? And, of course, there’s a deadly threat lurking in Zangaria, just waiting for Emily and her friends …
And it may be Emily’s fault that the kingdom is teetering on the brink of collapse.