Monday, May 23, 2022

Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded

Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded
by Sage Blackwood
Recommended Ages: 12+

Chantel belongs to a school where unwanted girls are taught sorcery. Knowing that much, you'd probably guess the kingdom where she lives – a walled city called Lightning Pass – must be a wondrous place. But actually, it has problems. Politically, it's run by a council of Patriarchs who are pretty much in it for themselves. Pushed to the sidelines is a king who has murdered his way to the top and isn't much of an alternative. The local culture is marked by docile contentment with whatever the leaders decree, while they're bringing economic and military ruin upon the people – thanks to a tribe of what they call Marauders who have gathered at the gates, demanding to be let in. And even though females control all the sorcery in town, men don't regard women in general, and girls in particular, as having anything to say that's worth listening to. So the sorceresses are trained from girlhood up to be "shamefast and biddable," and to put more stock in comportment than in spells, even though the defense of the city walls depends on them.

These problems fall into the lap of a girl named Chantel, who isn't particularly shamefast and biddable, but who has the potential to be a very powerful sorceress – note, for example, how she summoned a little green snake named Japheth as her familiar at the tender young age of 6. When things go from bad to worse, she makes it her personal mission to put things right, from the sorceresses (including her schoolmistress, Miss Ellicott) all vanishing one night, to the schoolgirls going hungry and in danger of being sold to a workhouse. In her exasperation with the Patriarchs' refusal to listen to her, she lets Japheth slither inside her head. Now she's even less shamefast and biddable, and a series of visionary encounters with a queen from 500 years ago – a queen-mage with a dragon as her familiar, who is now believed to have betrayed her country – has Chantel questioning everything she's been taught.

While Chantel goes around town, scandalizing everybody's manners, she starts to understand what's really going on and where her duty lies. It's a difficult process that involves making friends with the enemy, trying to think bigger thoughts, refusing to be captured and controlled, and (gulp) riding on the back of a dragon. It involves insisting on seeing things that almost everyone else refuses to see (like the dragon, for instance), daring to make her voice heard, figuring out that strength is built on total collapse, and knowing when to call for help.

Chantel's adventure is a pretty thrilling one, with its own distinct design for magic and a sense of humor that kept me smiling, and at a few points forced me to take a break for laughter. I laughed heartily, for instance, when Chantel discovered that swearing really works ("Owls' bowels!"), and again at her answer to whether she's a good witch or an evil witch; I even got a kick, for once, out of a book's acknowledgments. Chantel is a terrific main character, supported by several other characters who (in some cases) reveal hidden strengths. It's a satisfying stand-alone novel, yet hints of vastly more potential stories, if not set in the same fantasy world, then at least written by the same fantastic author.

This is (to date) the latest book by the author of the Wizard's Apprentice trilogy, which comprises Jinx, Jinx's Magic and Jinx's Fire. I realized, looking back over my past reviews, that I read Jinx about five years ago and it seems I enjoyed it at the time, but I'd forgotten all about it since then. I hope the fact that it's also been about five years since this book came out doesn't indicate the author has given up. I'm interested in seeing more from her. Also, I'd like to point out that the cover art for the edition I read is misleading; it has the cute, cartoony look of a story for small children, but the book itself comes across as more of a young adult fantasy, even if the main characters are a bit on the young end of that age bracket. For what it's worth.

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