I am a reader with Catholic tastes; I enjoy good space-operas, modern fantasies, supernatural thrillers, military sci-fi and alternate-reality sci-fi, and YA action/adventures, but occasionally I fall into a quiet mood where I’m ready to settle down and enjoy a good comedy of manners–the kind of story that moves along at a leisurely pace, filled with witty conversation and fascinating descriptions. Caroline Stevermer’s A College of Magics is this kind of story. The fact that it’s filled with lines that make any writer sit up and consider plagiarism is a bonus.
The year is 1908, and Greenlaw is a school for ladies in France. It teaches writing and history, comportment and accomplishments, and, of course, magic. Young Faris, the underage Duchess of Galazon (a postage-stamp sized country in central Europe) has been sent there by her wicked guardian and uncle, to learn to be a lady while he hatches his plots back home.
Stevermer’s story isn’t just set in Edwardian Europe, it’s written in the Edwardian style, the kind instantly recognizable to anyone who’s read A Prisoner of Zenda or The Count of Monte Cristo. This means it takes Stevermer forever to describe anything, and the reader had best be prepared for a long, quiet evening in which to digest her prose. For example, here is a description of Greenlaw’s gardens.
The gardens of Greenlaw were a source of wonder to Faris. Some were mathematical in the precise arrangement of herb and simple, some were loose and profuse with merely attractive flowers and shrubs, some were noble in proportion and venerable for antiquity, all held some unfamiliar plant. Anything that did not grow wild in Galazon struck Faris as foreign and probably unnecessary, but since her own presence at Greenlaw was certainly foreign and very likely unnecessary, she tried to be tolerant.
Greenlaw isn’t Hogwarts; the principles of magic are part of the curriculum, but actually doing magic can get a student expelled. And Faris is no Harry Potter; she certainly doesn’t want to be there and would much rather be home, thwarting her uncle’s schemes. She gets her wish a third of the way in–leaving Greenlaw and heading home (by way of Paris)–and the story becomes filled with spies, anarchists, fashion, trains, bombs transformed into fashionable hats, and other bits of fun.
A College of Magics is very hard to classify. It can be called YA fantasy, or historical fantasy, or alternate-history fantasy. I just call it fun fantasy, at least for readers who like to take things slow and revel in a writer’s prose. I would say its the perfect book for that kind of mood. It is long out-of-print, but still available through Amazon.com (I highly recommend the 1994 edition with the Richard Bober cover if you can find it in good condition).
And I was kidding about the plagiarism.