Monday, February 07, 2005

Stevermer: College of Magics—The Enchantment of Realpolitik


A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer is a juvenile fantasy with an interesting premise: a European school which teaches magic to those who attend. Before too many parallels to Harry Potter spring to mind, there are several differences. Greenlaw College is more a university than is preppy boarding school Hogwarts. Rather than being hidden amidst present-day Muggles, Greenlaw College graduates live openly in pre-WWI Europe.

But the most important contrast is the author's style. J.K. Rowling's Potter books are charming in their level of detail and focus on the practice of magic. Stevermer's characters are immersed in the political and personal implications of practicing magic, ignoring the practice itself to concentrate on the results.

Faris Nallaneen will be Duchess of her small north-central European province, Galazon, when she reaches her majority in a few short years. Her uncle, meanwhile, as regent and head of her family, has decreed that she must go away to attend Greenlaw College.

Faris knows that her uncle's plans are not likely to be for her benefit, but she discovers that running away from school is not a solution. For one thing, there is the mysterious Tyrian, who shows up whenever he is needed to save Faris' life (or prevent her from running away). For another, there is Menary of Averill, a spiteful miss with powers she did not learn to use at Greenlaw College, who has an unexplained grudge against Faris. And finally, there is Faris' growing love of learning and Greenlaw itself, almost enough to balance her homesickness.

When Menary and Faris fight over Tyrian in the Dean's Garden at Greenlaw, both are expelled. Now Faris must return to her uncle in disgrace—paying a visit on the way to one of the wardens of the world in Paris. What she learns from the Warden of the West will completely overturn her view of the world and her place in it, and give a deadly new meaning to her school battles with Menary of Averill.

The pre-WWI world in which Faris lives is clearly not our own, but there are enough congruent points to free Stevermer from the need to create everything afresh. So Faris, Tyrian and her other companions travel on the Orient Express, for example, when she returns home to Galazon. She reads The Prince and The Prisoner of Zenda at school, and we can assume we know how each will inform her. And when her chaperone and friend, Dame Jane Brailsford, insists that Faris buy clothes while in Paris, we know why.

Despite an uneven start, the book rewards its reader with a pleasant time. I predict sequels will do well; A Scholar of Magics follows Dame Jane Brailsford home to England where she encounters an American sharpshooter. I can hardly wait for the paperback.