A Deadly Education - The Scholomance, Book 1
The comparison to Hogwarts is inevitable but The Scholomance is on an entirely different level that is darker and more complex. Sorcerers built The Scholomance to protect their children from the malefactions that are always hungry for the magic that sorcerers contain. The idea was to build it in a void pocket with a single portal that would only open once a year for graduates to exit and freshmen to enter. Its creator knew that malefactions would still find their way in, but powerful wards were built into the structure to make it difficult for them to get past the portal hall. Then just before the seniors exit the portal hall it is swept with mortal fire to kill the mals and give the students a clear path to the portal. It works, except for the mortal fire part, and at most sixty percent of the kids manage to survive "graduation". To increase their chances of survival the kids form alliances and work together, but El is the least popular kid in her year. For three years she has been looking for a chance to impress the better connected students but time is running out. Everything begins to change when her year's golden boy and self-appointed hero, Orion, busts into her room to save her from a mal.
Anyone else might be grateful for help but not El. She blames her mother, who is a paragon of healing and light magic, which means it is expected that her daughter's affinity would be for spells of mass destruction. It's all a matter of magical balance and since everyone loves her mother that means El's aura makes people draw back in distaste. El could easily be the most powerful student in the school, and would be a great asset on Graduation Day, but her spells require massive amounts of mana and the easiest way to get it is to pull from other living things, namely her fellow students. Most sorcerers casually draw from plants without thinking about it, but those who go further are called Maleficers and it leaves a physical mark on them in proportion to the damage they do. To avoid temptation, El has never even killed a blade of grass but sadly her aura and attitude means everyone assumes she is already a maleficer. It's not necessarily a bad thing, and some of her fellow students actually are maleficers, like the girl who spent her weight allowance on a basket of rats to sacrifice along the way.
But after all, magic does like balance. For example, when she sacrifices her power reserve on a heroic act that no one will ever know about, she also gets an incredibly rare spell book which can be bartered for great advantages. Another example is Orion's heroics having saved way too many students which is then balanced by an increased number of strong mals trying to break through the wards. This bodes poorly for Graduation Day, which is almost here, and the seniors are upset because they will face an unprecedented number of mals in the portal hall. Some are more than willing to let the wards fall, and spread the danger to the whole school, rather than face it with their year alone. They issue an ultimatum to Orion and the juniors, attempt to repair the mortal fire engine or everyone will regret this Graduation Day. It's a suicide mission but it might feed enough mals so that on Graduation Day some seniors make it to the portal.
El isn't a likable character on the surface and one reason people dislike her is because she not only dislikes them but also herself. Also, no matter how desperately she thinks she wants an alliance with the more powerful kids, she just can't bring herself to like or trust them. While she isn't vastly transformed in this book she does begin to change while not losing her snark and sarcasm. Most importantly she forms her own unlikely alliance built on mutual aid rather than wealth or power. Orion doesn't conform to the expected behaviors for an entitled enclave kid and El finally starts to trust him only to discover in the last pages that something may be terribly wrong. She's also outed as the child of an incredibly well known and respected independent so her senior year promises to be even more interesting.
The action takes a long while to get started but The Scholomance itself is a fascinating magical world. Technically A Deadly Education rates as YA because the characters are all kids but this isn't Harry Potter's gang. Every decision El makes may have life or death consequences in either the short or long term. Some of the kids are are looking for allies but a few are looking for easy victims. Get to the cafeteria first and you might be the first to discover that the rice is really made of tiny mals but get there too late and all the actual food might be gone or you have to sit at the table closest to the door with it at your back. The mals come in a variety of horrors, some familiar in the genre, some not. Most teen survival series are situations forced upon the kids but here they're actually grateful to be be admitted because the alternatives are much worse. Its the weird combination of Harry Potter, Lovecraft, and the Hunger Games people didn't know they wanted.
The audiobook version is narrated by Anisha Dadia, who gets good ratings for her performance over on Audible.