A College of Magics
by Caroline Stevermer
Because this Starscape book appears to be about a school for magic,
comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable. There's even one on the book
jacket, from none other than Jane Yolen, claiming that this book is "a
large step up...from Harry Potter." But I found that it compares more
readily to the works of Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones.
On the Aiken side, it is a fantasy novel set in a world geographically &
historically similar, but not identical, to ours (it has England,
France, and Spain, for instance, but also other countries you've never
heard of). It's set at a more or less recognizable point in history
(early 20th century). And its plot is a tapestry woven of equal parts
political intrigue, tantalizing romance, mystery, and metaphysics. On
the Wynne Jones side, a major thread in this tapestry is magic. And not
just any magic. The kind of magic, rather, that effects the environment
in unforeseen ways, that needs to be balanced and controlled, that has
ethical limitations, and that arises from "the structure of the world"
(implying that this world is one of many that overlap, that power and
even people can sometimes travel between them).
OK, enough of the "Aiken meets Wynne Jones" stuff. Comparisons will only
take you so far. Do you want to know what goes on this book? I'll tell
First, the title is a bit misleading. The story isn't primarily about a
college of magics. In fact, only the first third of it takes place at
Greenlaw College, where the teenage duchess of Galazon, Faris Nallaneen,
is sent by her untrustworthy uncle to study, and to get out from
underfoot, for three years. Until she comes of age, that is, and can
return home to rule her beloved Galazon for herself.
In a little less than three swift years of study, Faris deals with
homesickness, makes some friends and enemies, and studies literature,
philosophy, mathematics, music, and so on, in a rigorous,
classical-education environment. But it's not for nothing that the
graduates of the all-female Greenlaw College are known as "witches." For
they also study magic. Only, they're strictly forbidden to perform any
magic as students, and many of them seem to prefer not to use magic
after they graduate. It's an intriguing (read: odd) way to study magic,
Things come to a pass where Faris' deadly enmity with a classmate named
Menary Paganell-who is a princess from the kingdom next door to
Galazon-gets them both sent away from the school. Menary is expelled
because she performed illegal, not to mention evil, magic on school
grounds. Faris, on the other hand, is sent on a mission. Because it
seems Faris is one of the four Wardens of the World, and it is her task
to close a rift that threatens to tear the whole world apart.
Only problem is, the rift is in the middle of the palace of Menary's
father, the King of Aravill, who has romantic intentions toward Faris,
though his daughters loathe her. Did I say that was the only problem? I
forgot to mention, Menary is still trying to kill Faris. And Faris'
Uncle Brinker is still up to some crooked scheme. And Faris is falling
in love with her bodyguard Tyrian, though as a married man, a menial
servant, and an adventurer (in the 19th century sense-see The Pickwick
Papers), he would be a most inappropriate match for a duchess. Also,
revolution is brewing in Aravill, and a leader of the revolution will
have Faris as his figurehead if he has to force her to do it. And Faris
doesn't know how to do any magic intentionally, though she has done some
pretty awesome things by accident, so how is she supposed to close the
Throw in a bomb disguised as a hat, a best friend disguised as an
elderly chaperone, a ruined throne room guarded by lions, a long journey
by train, coach, and horseback, an expensive shopping trip in Paris,
multiple assassination attempts, a masked ball, an enchanted labyrinth,
a glass key, and a fox hunt, and you have a wide-ranging tale of danger,
love, intrigue, magic, sacrifice, humor, and bittersweet surprises.
Fronting it all is the amazing character of Faris Nallaneen: a doubter
who becomes first a believer and then someone to believe in, a bold
heroine who is put to an awful test, a rough-and-tumble tomboy
who develops poise and control. Her brashness and strength of character
propel events forward and keep everything off-balance until a costly
equilibrium is achieved.
I may have said too much already. I don't want you to read this review
instead of the book. Read the book. I think you'll find it's no threat
to Harry Potter (it's in a different class altogether). It's a bit more
cerebral, but it's also exciting and colorful, and full of the kind of
magic you love to read about. Oh, and just to charm you with one more
incentive to read this book, I will risk a brief quote:
...When she could spare attention from the teapot, Jane looked sharply
across at Tyrian. "Who are you, anyway?"
Tyrian was slicing the plum cake with a large knife of alarmingly
efficient design. "I beg your pardon?"
Jane addressed him sternly. "You know what I mean. You appear like the
slave of the lamp just in time to stop Faris killing that sailor. You
bring out the worst in Menary and the best in the Dean. You can make the
French railway produce tea and you carry a knife better suited to cut
throats than to slice cake. Who are you?"
Recommended Age: 14+
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