Friday, April 11, 2008

Caroline Stevermer

A College of Magics
by Caroline Stevermer
Recommended Age: 14+

Because this 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 you.

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, isn't it?

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 rift?

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?"
A Scholar of Magics
by Caroline Stevermer
Recommended Age: 14+

This is the middle book of a trilogy that began with A College of Magics and continues in When the King Comes Home. Oddly, though I read the first book nearly two years ago, and have had the third book on my shelf for some time, it has taken me until now to get hold of the second book. This has been one of the most frustrating books to get hold of. Owing to my deep respect for A College of Magics, I did not give up. And now I am VERY happy to be able to tell you about this book!

In this trilogy’s version of the early 20th century world, magic is a real, natural force that is studied at exclusive schools such as Greenlaw College (a women’s school in France) and Glasscastle University (in Britain, for men). The balance of the world’s magic is kept by four wardens, whose existence is kept so quiet that many people regard them as legend. But as the heroine of A College of Magics turned out to be the Warden of the North, we can safely accept them as real.

Said heroine’s sidekick, Miss Jane Brailsford, comes to Glasscastle, ostensibly to visit her brother, who is a senior fellow of the university. The real reason she has come to visit is to give the new Warden of the West a bit of a push, or to find out why he isn’t doing his job. Teasing her brother and his divination-inclined wife Amy is just a bonus.

The new Warden is another fellow of the University, named Nicholas Fell. Fell lodges with a visiting American marksman named Lambert, a young man who has no hope of being invited to study magic at Glasscastle himself – he is only helping with a secret, government-funded project – but he can’t stop dreaming of doing so. When a series of strange and sinister happenings arises, connected with both Fell and the Agincourt Project, Lambert and Jane work together to get to the bottom of it. What they find out is scary, weird, and silly all at the same time... but mostly, dangerous to them, to Fell, and to the magic that holds Glasscastle together.

It is clear that Stevermer, a Minneapolis-based author, relishes the writing of period, British fiction. Sometimes she relishes it so much that the story loses momentum. But it’s hard to complain (even of the occasional anachronism) when the characters are so effervescent, the setting so magical, and the romance so innocently enjoyable. Unlike Amy’s teas (when there is always a danger that tea leaves will be read), the world of Glasscastle is an enjoyable place to stay, even when very little is going on. And to be sure, most of the time quite enough is going on!

Now, at last, I can read When the King Comes Home. Thank you, Starscape, for finally coming through with A Scholar of Magics!

When the King Comes Home
by Caroline Stevermer
Recommended Age: 14+

After creating a remarkable, alternate-history fantasy world based on the early 20th century in A College of Magics and A Scholar of Magics, Caroline Stevermer retreats into an even earlier century in this book. Styled as the memoir of an artist in what I would estimate to be the 18th century, in the fictional kingdom of Aravis, When the King Comes Homes has many of the elements that stir the imagination of today’s fantasy readers. It has gruesome secrets hidden in the masterpieces and notebooks of a Renaissance-era artist. It contains terrible acts of alchemy and necromancy, battles between the armies of good and evil (fought, in part, with magical weapons), and fateful collisions of politics with the forces of the heart. But perhaps most memorably of all, it turns the phrase “Gold has no memory” into something chilling to think about.

It starts when a young girl named Hail Rosamer goes to the great city of Aravis to become an artist’s apprentice. Her studies are going well enough until she becomes fascinated with the work of a long-dead artist named Maspero. Particularly, she takes an unhealthy interest in Maspero’s Siege Medallion, containing a likeness of Good King Julian.

That’s Julian IV, who died in Vienna, and whose body was returned home for burial after such long delays that it gave rise to a proverb: “When the king comes home...” It’s not a prophecy – merely a light-hearted proverb that becomes a very harsh reality when an evil necromancer raises King Julian and his champion Istvan from the dead.

By a remarkable twist of circumstance, Hail finds herself at the center of the you-know-what that breaks loose at that point. Whatever you want to call it, it involves a plan to take over the throne of the kingdom, a ritual full of spine-tingling portents (occult content advisory!) and a march into battle that captures a bit of what warfare was like in that age. (Quote: “Complete inactivity punctuated by bursts of terror. That’s the military life.”) It also involves hints of romance, heart-rending sorrow, and an appreciation of how ghastly it would be to be brought back from the dead against your will...not only for you, but also for the person whose body your spirit is put into! (Shudder!)

Besides all this, it is a tightly written, well-paced adventure full of beautiful imagery and a mildly accurate, but never tiresome, imitation of the way people spoke and wrote once upon a time. In fact, I think this is Ms. Stevermer’s most assured and successful piece of “historical fiction” that I have yet seen.

EDIT: Stevermer is also the author of the post-apocalyptic River Rats and, with Patricia C. Wrede, a trilogy of alternate-world Regency-era fantasy-romances titled Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, The Grand Tour or The Purloined Coronation Regalia, and The Mislaid Magician or Ten Years After.

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